Eight more high-achieving Muscogee County School District eighth-graders from low-income families are closer to making their dream of a college education a reality, thanks to the promise of a $10,000 scholarship and the invaluable support they received Wednesday.
This is the second year MCSD has participated in the five-year-old public-private partnership program called REACH (Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen), initiated by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal.
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, demonstrate good behavior and attendance, participate in program events and be drug-free and crime-free to continue in the program. They also 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.
MCSD’s 2017 cohort of REACH Scholars were announced during a ceremony in the Muscogee County Public Education Center, where the students and their parents or guardians signed contracts declaring they will meet the program’s requirements to receive the scholarship money. This year’s recipients are:
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▪ Kiana Agulto of Rothschild Leadership Academy
▪ Shaquaviah Bellamy of East Columbus Magnet Academy
▪ Breanna Cooper of Rainey-McCullers School of the Arts
▪ Cameron Dobson of Midland Middle School
▪ Mitchell Harris of Fort Middle School
▪ Heather James of Eddy Middle School
▪ Evan Stancombe of Midland Middle School
▪ Brandon Wilber of Aaron Cohn Middle School.
Kiana, 13, told the Ledger-Enquirer in an interview after the ceremony that receiving the scholarship “excited” and “overwhelmed” her. She hopes the financial aid will help her become a pediatrician.
“It means I can actually go to school and have a career and help others out,” she said.
Her mother, Deeanna Agulto, said, “I am very proud of her.”
Agulto is taking classes to get into the nursing program at Columbus Technical College, and her husband works on road projects, so with five children at home, affording a college education for all of them is a daunting task – but this scholarship will make it easier. She laughed and said she told her oldest daughter, a high school senior, “I wish we had this when she was (in eighth grade).”
Muscogee County School District REACH Scholarship coordinator Reginald Griffin, who also is principal of the Edgewood Student Services Center alternative school, said during the ceremony, “REACH is a beautiful combination of both private and public sectors to promote and increase access to education beyond high schools for Georgians.”
Donations from local businesses and individuals have totaled approximately $20,000 for this cohort, Griffin said. Matching state funds from public and private sources will generate an additional $60,000, he said, amounting to $80,000 to be divided among these eight students. The school district must raise $2,500 for each new REACH Scholar to receive $7,500 from the state, creating the $10,000 scholarship.
“The state of Georgia’s economy and well-being is hinged on the expertise of our youth,” Griffin said, “and we will benefit from these scholars in the future.”
Griffin credited Columbus Councilor Pops Barnes for bringing the REACH program to the school district’s attention. Some of the REACH Scholars will become the first members of their family to earn a college degree, Barnes noted. He sparked applause and a round of “amen” in the crowd when he asked, “Isn’t that a blessing?”
Beyond the commitments from the students and parents, Barnes said, the commitment from the community is a “huge” part of the program.
Muscogee County School Board chairwoman Pat Hugley Green of District 1 called public education “the great equalizer.” She asked the eight REACH Scholars sitting in the front row to turn around and look at the parents, school officials and community leaders gathered in the room.
“We are so proud of you,” Green told the students. “… We’re going to make sure that you have the funding you need to fulfill your dreams and prepare your family to the next level, but we’re also going to provide you the support to hold up your end of the commitment.”
MCSD superintendent David Lewis said he is the first member of his family to go to college. He urged the REACH Scholars to “pay it forward. … When you go to college, when you graduate, when you get your job, at some point, reinvest that money into students that come behind you.”
Lewis linked REACH to MCSD’s mission statement: “to inspire and equip all students to achieve unlimited potential.”
“I can’t think of a better program that embodies those characteristics,” he said.
As much as the scholarship is an investment in these children, MCSD student services chief Angela Vickers suggested they also should consider this an opportunity to invest in themselves.
“When you invest in yourselves,” Vickers told them, “you change generations. … Even when you struggle, it will be a great day because it will be a lesson that will prepare you for the next step in your life.”
More than 60 percent of jobs in Georgia will require a postsecondary education by 2025, according to the commendation from Deal that Vickers read during the ceremony, but only 42 percent of the state’s adults have attained that level.
Kiana intends to do her part to plug that gap -- and fulfill the superintendent’s expectation of paying her scholarship forward.
“Whatever I get, I can give back,” she said, “because people gave back to me.”
The REACH Scholarship is awarded to eighth-graders in Georgia. Muscogee County School District REACH Scholarship coordinator Reginald Griffin, who also is principal of the Edgewood Student Services Center, said students interested in applying should contact their middle school guidance counselor. A selection committee of MCSD and community leaders read the applications and interview finalists to determine the eight recipients, Griffin said. MCSD had 21 students apply last year, the first year the district participated. More than 50 applied this year, he said.
About the program
According to the REACH Georgia website, the program has grown during the past year from 330 students in 41 participating school districts to more than 1,200 students in 103 participating school districts. And since the program’s launch in 2012, all REACH Scholars have continued to meet the program’s requirements to receive their scholarship upon graduation, says ReachGa.org. In fact, the website says, all 18 members of the inaugural REACH Scholars graduated from high school. The 17 members who were in the class of 17 were accepted into college for this school year, including 16 who received the HOPE Scholarship, and the other member graduated a year early with the class of 2016 and entered the workforce to join the family’s business, the website says.