ATLANTA (AP) - Some middle school students in Georgia will soon have a $10,000 reason to stay out of trouble.
Gov. Nathan Deal announced Monday that he is launching a privately funded, need-based scholarship program aimed at grooming low-income students for college. Participating students must sign a contract in middle school that they will remain crime-free, not have any behavior issues and achieve a high school GPA of 2.5.
In exchange, the students will get a $2,500 annual scholarship for up to four years of a Georgia public or private college, as well as mentors and coaches to help them through middle and high school.
"It will create new opportunities for students all across our state," Deal said in a news conference at Georgia Tech.
The program will be piloted in Bulloch, Douglas and Rabun counties, with additional counties to join later. Eventually, the state hopes to have every school district participating and all funds will be raised privately.
It's modeled on a program in Cartersville City Schools, which the superintendent there brought from Florida, Deal said.
Daphanie Johnson, a junior in Cartersville who enrolled in the district's scholarship program when she was in middle school, said the scholarship will make it possible for her to attend college. She said she hopes to attend the University of Georgia or Berry College in Rome and major in animal medicine.
"It's kind of like my ticket out. It's hard work paying off," Johnson said after Monday's news conference.
Deal said the state has already received a $250,000 donation from AT&T to fund the first batch of 25 students. Georgia Tech officials say the institution will match the scholarship for any student in the program qualifying for enrollment at the Atlanta university.
To keep the scholarship, students must maintain a 2.0 GPA in college. Though not all of the students will be eligible to receive the HOPE scholarship, they can combine the two awards if they get both, program officials said.
Students who are the first in their family to go to college will be given priority in the selection process, and students will be chosen by their local district, program officials said.
Georgia Democrats criticized the scholarship program, saying Deal should be focused on fixing the HOPE scholarship rather than starting a new program. Democrats say that the HOPE scholarship will go broke in coming years because changes made to the scholarship program last year did not do enough to rein in spending.
"Right now, the governor is not willing to face the facts that HOPE is in crisis," said state Sen. Jason Carter, a Democrat from Decatur, said during a news conference at the Capitol on Monday. "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, Deal led state lawmakers to make massive cuts to the HOPE program for the first time in years. They cut awards for all but the state's highest performing students and halted payments for fees and textbooks.
And for the first time, students attending the state's technical colleges have to maintain a 3.0 GPA to keep their awards.
Deal's spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor saved HOPE but the 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."