Five Oak Hill Middle School eighth-graders made big commitments Thursday, and if they stick to them there’s a big payoff waiting once they finish high school.

Students Emaleigh Burdge, Damonte Holsey, Zaela Primas, Bernasia Simmons and Aaliyah Stowe are Baldwin County’s REACH scholars for 2019. REACH (realizing educational achievement can happen) is Georgia’s needs-based mentorship and college scholarship program aimed at helping students who would be the first in their families to attend college money toward an in-state postsecondary education. If the students maintain a 2.5 GPA, good attendance and behavior then they will receive a scholarship upon graduating from high school. The award is $2,500 per college year ($10,000 total) that can be used at HOPE-eligible University System of Georgia, Technical College System of Georgia, or eligible private colleges. The REACH scholarship does not preclude students from receiving other scholarship funds like HOPE, so even just those two together can go a long way in paying for a college education. Some REACH partner institutions — like Georgia College, Georgia Military College and Central Georgia Tech — will match the REACH scholarship, making it $20,000 total.

This marks the fifth year that Baldwin County has produced a REACH scholarship signing class. A ceremony attended by school officials and other local dignitaries was held Thursday inside Oak Hill’s media center to celebrate the county’s newest REACH scholars. 

“This program has proven itself over and over again as being one of the most important for our students — breaking down barriers to college, education and helping our students chase their dreams… I’m confident in our collective future knowing that one day soon these young scholars will be those people who are leading our community, leading our state, and leading our country towards a better and brighter tomorrow,” Baldwin County School Superintendent Dr. Noris Price said Thursday before the students signed their commitments. 

Created in 2012, REACH serves more than 150 public school systems across the state and has benefited nearly 1,800 students, committing more than $22 million in college scholarships. Teachers and counselors nominate seventh-grade students who are a good match for the program. Those students complete a detailed application complete with references, and those applications are narrowed down. The ones who make that cut go before an interview panel of community partners, made up this year of Dana Davis, VP of satellite operations for Central Georgia Technical College, Milledgeville-Baldwin County Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Angie Martin, and Georgia Power area manager Greg Tyson. The panel names the five scholars who sign while in the eighth grade. 

Baldwin County began participating in 2015, Dr. Price’s second year as superintendent. The REACH program has a community buy-in component, meaning that $1,500 of the $10,000 must be raised for each local recipient. Price shared Thursday that it was a struggle raising those funds the first year, but that’s not the case anymore thanks to two large local donations and the creation of the Baldwin County Charter System Foundation of Excellence, a tax-exempt organization set up so donations to the public school system would be tax-deductible. 

“Every year thereafter has gotten better,” Price said. “We’ve established our foundation, and I can tell you that today we are ahead of the game. We already have the money for next year’s students.”

The Foundation was created to raise funds for the REACH scholarship program, the county’s Teacher of the Year program and other recognition efforts that aren’t allowed to be funded with taxpayer dollars. 

This is the fifth REACH signing class locally, which means members of the first are getting ready to graduate high school in the spring. They, and all local REACH signees, were present at Thursday’s ceremony. Each was asked to share what they plan on majoring in and also where they would like to attend college. Desired majors included software engineering, graphic design, nursing and veterinary technician. One even says she wants to become President of the United States.

The ceremony closed with the most important portion, students and parents/guardians signing their commitments to maintain good grades, attendance and behavior in school. Those present in the audience were also asked to verbally pledge their support of these students in their future endeavors.

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