When Mark Bryant, a 17-year-old senior at the Professional Academies Magnet at Loften High School, heard about the Take Stock in Children’s program he knew very little about it, nor the organization that started the program — The Education Foundation of Alachua County.
All he knew was that he had friends in the program whose mentors met them for special lunches.
“I started hanging out with my friends and their mentors and eventually I got an interview for it,” Mark said.
Mark is one of the 59 students from Alachua County who will receive a Florida two-year, prepaid college scholarship to any college or technical program, through the Take Stock in Children program. And he’s one of the 58 students to earn a scholarship through the Education Foundation’s senior scholarship program.
This year, the Education Foundation was able to award nearly $700,000 in scholarships to graduating seniors.
The $700,000 is a combination of the senior scholarship program and the Take Stock in Children program, which awarded $472,000. Through the senior scholarship program they were to raise $220,000 in grant money.
The Education Foundation is a Gainesville-based nonprofit created 35 years ago with a mission to invest in Alachua County Public Schools students.
For the senior scholarship program, 38 families, local businesses and civic organizations came together to create the scholarship opportunities.
“It’s really like an entire community effort to get those organizations and individuals supporting a local student’s dream to go to college,” said Rachel Debigare, director of the foundation.
There were 37 scholarships offered. Each scholarship has its own requirements, such as being targeted to students from a particular high school or the college they’re headed to.
Students join Take Stock in Children early
Students can be accepted into the Take Stock in Children’s program as early as the seventh grade and through ninth grade.
The program’s goal is to give high-achieving students from a low-income background the opportunity to pursue higher education.
“We really prefer the majority of our kids selected in middle school just because we do believe in that kind of longstanding support and also it’s helpful for us to be able to help them navigate through high school,” Debigare said.
Students in the program must maintain a 2.5 GPA and pledge to stay drug- and crime-free. Students are placed with a volunteer mentor who meets with them throughout the school year.
Students must also be eligible for free or reduced lunch at the school they’re attending.
Mark was accepted into the program in eighth grade. He remembered preparing for his interview for the program, feeling as if it was an intense job interview. It wasn’t that bad, he said.
“They asked what I wanted to do in college and in the future, basic scholarship questions … At the time, I wanted to be a videogame designer,” Mark said.
It was the mentorship that attracted him to the program, as well as his determination to attend college.
Mark will be a first-generation college student. He said his mother has a high school diploma and his father made a living as a welder.
“It felt awesome,” Mark said of his acceptance into the program. “And they’re just offering to pay for two years of it [college] like it’s nothing.”
Mark’s mentor in the program was Floyd Settmaw. They met when Bryant was in the ninth grade.
“My mentor has been awesome, I don’t think I could have gotten a better match,” Mark said.
Settmaw and Bryant met once a week during lunch, and he would often bring Bryant a meal of his choice, like a burrito from Moe’s Southwest Grill.
Mark said Settmaw is in the military and he works at Disney Studios. The Sun tried reaching out to Settmaw for comment, but was unsuccessful.
“He’s always been there if I needed to talk and honestly he’s just really easy to talk to,” Mark said.
Debigare said the program always needs mentors, and right now, they especially need 15 male mentors to join.
Mentors must fill out an application and undergo a background check.
“Then we have somebody on staff who actually looks at the mentors and compares them to the students that we have,” Debigare said. “The application for both the mentors and the student allows us to see into their lives a little bit and kind of figure out what their interests are.”
Bryant’s future is looking bright
Mark received the two-year prepaid scholarship through the Take Stock in Children’s program and the Dr. Dan McKinnon Memorial Scholarship for $2,000 through the senior scholarship program.
Dr. Dan McKinnon scholarship goes to a senior from Loften High School who plans to continue their education at Santa Fe College in a career/technical education program.
In the fall, Mark will begin his college career at SF College in a technical education program with a focus on graphic design.
He said he’s grateful to the education foundation both for the resources it provided and for leaving him feeling optimistic about his future.
“They’ve just helped me. It’s always a reminder to just keep on the right track, aside from all the services that they provide. I’ve always looked at it as a reason to do good, because I’ve got an opportunity that other kids don’t, and I don’t want to waste it,” Mark said.