By Scott Thompson

News-Journal Reporter

Four Barrow County School System students sat at tables with family members in front of cameras and a room full of people and signed contracts.

It wasn’t the college football signing day ceremony that has become a nationwide ritual every February. Instead, the contracts signified the students’, and their families’, commitment to their academic futures.

Eighth-graders Jasmine Hernandez (Bear Creek Middle), Damien Brown (Russell Middle), Isaac Xiong (Haymon-Morris Middle) and Christopher Munoz (Westside Middle) joined the REACH Georgia scholar program during Tuesday morning’s ceremony at the system’s central office.

“It kind of is like college signing day; it’s just a neat thing,” guest speaker and state Rep. Terry England, said of the ceremony, which was one of 90 happening around Georgia on Tuesday. “I’m glad we decided as a state to do this on a statewide basis and have some excitement about it because this is a very important day.” REACH (Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen) Georgia was launched by the state in 2012 and is a mentoring and scholarship needs-based program aimed at providing low-income but high-achieving students access to higher education and helping them develop and sustain a career path.

The program’s first students from Dodge, Douglas and Rabun counties graduated high school earlier this year, and so far it has not lost any students while growing to 700 scholars in 69 school systems statewide.

Barrow County became part of the program last year and initiated five students in addition to the four who signed on Tuesday. Qualifying middle school students are nominated by their teachers and go through an extensive application process that includes a written application, two academic recommendations and one community recommendation.

Those selected sign contracts with their parents or guardians pledging to maintain at least a 2.5 grade-point average, attend school regularly and remain crime-, drug- and behavior issue-free. They are paired with community mentors and academic coaches, who along with the students’ families, help monitor their progress.

Those who complete the program upon high school graduation are eligible to receive up to $10,000 in financial scholarships through the program to go toward enrollment at any in-state HOPE-eligible, public or private, two-year or four-year institution.

Barrow County superintendent Chris McMichael said roughly 60 colleges and universities have pledged matches or double matches for the scholars, meaning they could be eligible for up to $30,000 in financial help, depending on the institution they attend.

To date, more than $11 million has been invested in the program through public and private contributions.

“It’s a proud day for all of us,” McMichael said. “… This is not a handout-type thing. It’s a partnership between the state, communities and colleges. This is something that’s pretty unprecedented in this state for everyone to come together like this.”

According to a commendation letter signed by Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, 60 percent of Georgia’s jobs by 2020 will require postsecondary degrees or certificates, but only 42 percent of the state’s young adults currently have such credentials.

The program’s website touts progress, noting that 90 percent of its scholars are “on a trajectory” for the HOPE Scholarship, compared to just 49 percent of the state’s students who were HOPE-eligible in 2015.

In a recorded video message, Deal and first lady Sandra Deal urged students to remain committed to their education beyond completing the requirements.

“This program is just a launching pad to the future,” Gov. Deal said.

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