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First REACH scholars announced, paired with mentors in Gainesville
Three of the REACH scholars talk with Maria Calkins, past chair of the Gainesville Board of Education, at the reception after the ceremony Tuesday at Gainesville Middle School. The students are, from left, Imelda Razo, Paloma Barron-Galvan and Ayeley Theodora Afantchao. - photo by RON BRIDGEMAN

Five Gainesville Middle School students joined about 680 others in Georgia as REACH scholars Tuesday. The state program to encourage students to attend college also pairs the student with mentors for the next five years and offers extra academic support.

Georgia started the program in 2012, and 69 school systems now are part of it. Hall County will announce its first group of students Monday night at its board meeting.

Tuesday was the statewide “signing” day for the program, and 353 students were announced as REACH scholars.

The five GMS students each will receive $10,000 for a college scholarship, and they have the chance to double that amount. They also may add to it any other scholarships they receive when they graduate from high school.

Rose Prejean-Harris, Gainesville Middle principal, said many of the state’s colleges are matching the scholarship — providing additional money if the students meet the program goals.

The state’s first class of REACH — Realizing Educational Achievement Can Happen — scholars will graduate in spring 2017. After the first two years of the program, absenteeism was down about 30 percent and disciplinary infractions were down about 60 percent.

GMS held a schoolwide assembly Tuesday morning to praise the students, recognize mentors and the state and encourage its other students to reach the same goals.

The students signed a “contract” for the scholarship. They agree to maintain a 2.5 grade-point average, attend school faithfully, avoid discipline problems and meet with mentors and academic coaches.

The students are Ayeley Theodora Afantchao, Paloma Barton-Galvan, Kaylee Bautista, Imelda Razo and Isaac Ruiz.

Part of the program is a mentor for each student. A mentor and student meet twice a month for the next five years.

Mentors are Cynetia Banks, Brian Cunningham, Pat Burd, Linda Ingle and Jackie Wallace.

Cunningham said he has been a mentor for boys, mostly of middle school age, for seven or eight years since he retired in 2008. His wife, a former teacher, encouraged him to volunteer as a mentor, he said.

“Some of them (the boys) drift away, but others start getting good traction,” he said. He will be the mentor for Isaac.

Burd, a former counselor for Hall County and Gainesville city schools, is on the Georgia Student Finance Commission. She pointed to administrators, parents, business people and other students and told the students “there are so many people that believe in you.”

In a video, Ayeley said she is “going to school” for her parents. The family is from West Africa.

State Sen. Butch Miller, R-Gainesville, encouraged the students to have “a big, audacious dream.” He said the student body has “unbelievable potential.” Prejean-Harris, in a similar vein, referred to the REACH scholars as “students of promise.”

Wanda Creel, Gainesville school superintendent, said, “There are so many opportunities out there waiting for you to find them.”

She added a plea for help from the community. Starting with the 2017 REACH students, Gainesville will have to provide $3,500 per student per year, a total of $17,500 — and it must be raised from private sources.