When she moved to the United States from Mexico five years ago as a third-grader, Alexsandra Casanova-Chavez couldn’t speak English, and the thought of going to college seemed to be an elusive goal.
Now an eighth-grader at Eddy Middle School, she speaks fluent English and is on track toward a college education. And thanks to a state program called REACH (Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen), she is one of eight Muscogee County School District eighth-graders who won’t have to worry about affording college if they keep meeting high standards.
REACH is a four-year-old, needs-based mentorship and scholarship program implemented for the first time this year in Columbus. The local recipients, selected by a panel of MCSD and community leaders out of 21 applicants, signed a contract along with their parents or guardians during a ceremony Tuesday morning in the Muscogee County Public Education Center.
The other recipients are: Brinique Wright of Baker Middle School; Johnny Moore Jr., Akeamma Thomas and Katherine Waters of Eddy Middle School; Adam Cobis-Ribeiro and Dillon Jack of Richards Middle School; and Brianna Owens of Rothschild Leadership Academy.
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“It means everything in the world,” Alexsandra told the Ledger-Enquirer after the ceremony. “It’s hope for my future, a light in the dark.”
Alexsandra’s mother, Lilia, said through an interpreter, “I’m so proud of her.” Without such a scholarship, Lilia said, “it would not be possible” for the family to afford college expenses.
So now Alexsandra has a realistic chance of working in a career more lucrative than her parents’ shampoo factory jobs. She wants to be a college professor, teaching English or biology.
“I want to help others to achieve their dreams,” she said. “I want to encourage them and tell them that anything is possible.”
REACH Scholars are paired with a mentor and an academic coach to support them through high school. The students must maintain a grade-point average of at least 2.5 and good behavior and attendance to continue in the program. They must use the scholarship at any HOPE-eligible institution in Georgia, which may match or double-match the scholarship amount of $10,000 ($2,500 per year) in addition to any other scholarship or grant the student receives.
Georgia first lady Sandra Deal was among the dignitaries in attendance. Her husband, Gov. Nathan Deal, initiated REACH in 2012. Since then, 69 of Georgia’s 181 school districts have joined the program.
The first lady explained the rationale for the investment while she spoke to the recipients.
“You have been spotted by your teachers,” she said. “They realize you have the ability to go on to college and to be a leader in our state and in your community.”
The mentors will help them along that path, she said.
“Lots of things happen to get you discouraged, and that’s why we want you to have mentors, mentors who will help you when you run up against some hard subjects that you’re having trouble with or things are happening at home and you really need to talk to somebody,” said Deal, a former middle school teacher. “They can help you by listening to you and helping you solve some of those issues.”
And, in turn, the first lady expects this first class of REACH Scholars in Columbus to be role models for those who follow.
“Make your scholarship count,” she told them.
In an interview after the ceremony, Melvin Blackwell, MCSD’s chief student services officer, gave credit to Columbus Councilor Jerry “Pops” Barnes of District 1 for pushing for Muscogee County to participate in the scholarship program. Blackwell said the state pays for the school district’s first cohort of REACH scholars. The number of scholarships available is based on the size of the school district. Principals and guidance counselors nominate students in the spring of their seventh-grade year to go through the selection process, which includes an application and interview, Blackwell said.
By next year and in each subsequent year, the school district must raise $2,500 for each new REACH Scholar to receive $7,500 from the state, Blackwell said. To donate to that effort, or for more information about the scholarship, call Blackwell at 706-748-3336.