State education officials could look toward Gainesville State College to see the potential of a new need-based scholarship announced Monday by Gov. Nathan Deal.
The REACH scholarship program will reach out to middle school students who may have the academic ability to attend college but not the financial means.
The students selected to participate will be paired with mentors and coaches to prepare them for college. If the students maintain good grades and stay out of trouble, they will receive a $10,000 scholarship that would be awarded in $2,500 sums for up to four years.
"It will create new opportunities for students all across our state," Deal said in a news conference at Georgia Tech.
Students selected for the program must remain crime-free and achieve a high school GPA of 2.5. They must also
maintain a 2.0 GPA in college to keep the scholarship.
But the privately funded program won't be statewide initially. It will begin with 25 students from Bulloch, Douglas and Rabun counties and will expand as more money is donated.
Although the program is modeled on another program in Cartersville City Schools, it closely resembles another program at Gainesville State College.
"I think it would be a great place to begin," said Paula Stubbs, principal at South Hall Middle School.
Each year rising Hall County and Gainesville high school students are selected to participate in the Summer Scholars Institute at the college. The institute is a four-week summer program for rising eighth-, ninth- and 10th-grade students who have the grades to potentially attend college but may not have the financial flexibility.
School officials say that program has presented new opportunities and self-motivation to those students.
"That contact has made college seem possible and real to the student," said Gainesville Schools Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. "They get information and guidance on applying for financial aid and having the right preparation."
Students who meet the requirements of the institute are selected by recommendations from school counselors. The students are then mentored by successful past participants of the program whether they are still in high school, attending Gainesville State or have already graduated from the college.
REACH scholars will also be selected by local school systems. Those schools will choose students who are eligible to receive free and reduced lunch and would place emphasis on those who would be the first in their family to attend college.
The students would then be paired with mentors and coaches to guide them through the process.
Though not all of the students selected for the REACH program will be eligible to receive the HOPE scholarship, they can combine the two awards if they get both, program officials said.
Tom Walter, vice president of student affairs at Gainesville State, said the Summer Scholars Institute has proven effective in Hall County and he would expect the new scholarship program to have the same success on a state level.
"I think it has potential. It really does because we are focusing on the same areas and trying to accomplish the very same goals," Walter said.
"I think anything that opens more doors to students for both K-12 education, as well as post-secondary education ... is a benefit not only to students but our community," he added.
Hall County Schools Superintendent Will Schofield said presenting students with college possibilities at the middle school level is imperative.
"I think a very positive aspect (of the REACH program) ... is that it begins to recognize that we lose children in upper elementary school and middle school. We don't lose them as 17-year-old juniors and seniors in high school," Schofield said.
"Students may physically drop out in high school, but they mentally drop out in middle school," he added.
Walter said discussing college opportunities with children while in middle school allows them to effectively choose courses in high school. And rather than place added pressure on students it would encourage them to work harder.
"We don't feel that middle school is too early to be making that kind of connection," Walter said. "My hope is that it's going to be providing encouragement both for them and for their families."
He said research of the Summer Scholars program has determined the transition from middle school to high school is "critically important."
While many education officials are in support of the need-based scholarship, it has drawn criticism from some state Democrats, saying Deal should focus on fixing the HOPE scholarship rather than starting a new program.
"Right now, the governor is not willing to face the facts that HOPE is in crisis," said state Sen. Jason Carter, D-Decatur. "Gov. Deal is attempting to divert the public's attention from his mishandling of the HOPE scholarship fund. He is holding HOPE hostage and refusing to consider changes that will repair the damaged program."
Last year, extensive cuts were made to the HOPE program under Deal's leadership.
Brian Robinson, Deal's spokesman, said the governor saved HOPE but Democrats want to "do nothing at all and let it go bankrupt."
"The concept of balanced budgets baffles the Senate Democrats," Robinson said. "A bipartisan coalition acted courageously last year while Senate Democrats refused to negotiate so they could use the issue as a political football."
Associated Press contributed to this report.