By Josette Keelor
Five rising eighth graders from Shenandoah County could earn free college tuition by participating in a five-year program on college readiness beginning this fall.
The Valley Scholars Program, organized by James Madison University in Harrisonburg, targets students who will be the first in their immediate families to attend college, said Andrea Zimmon, a guidance counselor at North Fork Middle School in Quickburg.
The university will give scholarships for tuition and fees covering four years of education to students who complete the program in good standing, are admitted to James Madison University and choose to attend school there.
"We're really excited for the students," Zimmon said. "I think it's an awesome opportunity for them."
The Valley Scholars Program is modeled on others Program Director Shaun Mooney said he's seen developed over the last five to 10 years.
First-generation college applicants can find it difficult researching college and university programs, "because they don't have guides and mentors in many cases," Mooney said.
These are hurdles that students can find discouraging.
"This really is a partnership and a program with the school systems," Mooney said.
Participating students in Shenandoah County will join 30 others from school districts in the counties of Page, Rappahannock and Augusta and in Harrisonburg, Staunton and Waynesboro. One middle school in each district was chosen to participate.
After alerting students and parents of the opportunity for the program and receiving applications, each district submitted a list of eligible students to a university selection committee, which chose five names from each district.
Zimmon said she interviewed 19 applicants to determine the level and quality of their interest in participating over the next five years. She said first choices and alternates were selected and notified.
Names of Valley Scholars will not be released to the public until after families receive more information on program specifics, Mooney said.
A kickoff ceremony for students and families will take place at the university on Sept. 13.
Participating schools were chosen based on what Mooney called "a mixture of demographics."
Contributing factors were household income, single parent households and college attendance rates, "as far as college education attainment from that community," he said.
In a letter to students and parents, the Valley Scholars Program listed its mission as "engaging students in educational enrichment activities designed to increase awareness and access to institutions of higher education.
If all goes well, Mooney said, the project could expand to include more districts and schools in later years.
"[The program] will have minimum grade requirements for students from year to year," he said.
It also will offer activities throughout the year, with opportunities for summer internships with participating community organizations and businesses.
"The purpose of the program is for the students to attend a university," Mooney said. It starts by helping them "envision themselves going to college."
Contact staff writer Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137 ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org