GateKey program welcomes 10 new scholars into the fold


A group of 10 students have received an opportunity to make their educational dreams come true.

The group of eighth- through 11th-graders were named the Cartersville Schools Foundation’s latest GateKey Scholars during the 12th Annual GateKey Signing Ceremony Friday morning in the Cartersville High School auditorium.

The new class of scholars and their parents/guardians signed a contract that will award the students a two-year college scholarship when they graduate if they maintain good grades and stay out of trouble for the remainder of their academic career. 

“We’re honoring this morning some wonderful students that are truly remarkable, and they’ve made an impression on their teachers,” Superintendent Dr. Marc Feuerbach said. 

Students in grades 6-11 who receive free/reduced lunch, have a C or better average in all classes and have good behavior may be nominated by anyone for a GateKey scholarship.  

When the scholars graduate, the program will pay for tuition, fees, books and tools for two years at either Georgia Highlands College or Chattahoochee Technical College, but students who want to go to other colleges and universities can petition the foundation to use their allocated funds elsewhere.

And for students who want to continue on to their bachelor’s degree, the foundation will help them apply for other scholarships to minimize the need for student loans.  

Cartersville High Principal Shelley Tierce and Cartersville Middle Principal Ken MacKenzie introduced this year’s scholars: juniors Jailin Hernandez-Martinez, Abigail Milian and Raven Waterman; sophomores Kolbe Benham, Katlin Evans and Jimena Hernandez-Martinez; freshmen Olivia Kennedy and Miquelangel Marin; and eighth-graders Elizabeth Cruz-Garcia and Daniel Pina.  

“Looking these students up on PowerSchool today, I knew exactly what I was going to see,” MacKenzie said. “Their attendance records are impeccable. Their grades are wonderful. Their behavior referrals are zero. They’re just terrific students.” 

Tierce said nominees had to do two extra steps during the selection process this year: submit an essay on why they should be chosen as a GateKey recipient and do an interview with a panel of adults.

“For a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kid, that’s not easy to walk into a room full of adults,” she said. “But the one thing I feel like that all of our recipients did, they did the steps, and they set themselves apart from their peers. So being here today, they really earned this recognition.”

Tierce also said when the students look back 10 years from now, they’ll see it’s the “little things that count.”

“It’s your work ethic,” she said. “It’s your desire. It’s your character, and really it’s what’s in your heart that makes a difference in the world, and that is what I’m most impressed with about these kids.” 

Feuerbach explained the terms of the contracts – students must have good attendance, complete their homework every day, have good behavior, attend parent-teacher conferences if needed, stay drug-free and crime-free, work with a mentor, maintain a 2.0 GPA and attend system financial workshops – and the students and parents then signed them.

“You’ve been given an amazing opportunity,” Feuerbach told the new scholars. “Don’t take it for granted. You put your name to it so make the most of it.”

Elizabeth, 14, said she was “really excited when I first heard about” being named a GateKey Scholar.

“I was really proud of myself because I knew I was going to do it, and I completed my job,” she said.

The daughter of Gustavo Cruz of Cartersville said she was nominated before but “didn’t get it then I kept trying and trying until this year, I got it.”

The eighth-grader said she knows she plans to get a bachelor’s degree and wants to be a nurse or a pediatrician.

She also doesn’t know what college she wants to attend yet but is considering spending her first two years at Kennesaw State University or Georgia Highlands.

Fifteen-year-old Kolbe was happy to be selected as a scholar this year.

“I feel blessed for getting the opportunity to go to college,” the sophomore said.

Kolbe, son of Shala and Terance Benham of Cartersville, said he’s “not really” sure what he wants to do yet, but “me and my parents are still talking about it.”

He said he’s thinking he might want to be an athletic trainer.

Foundation President Lisa Bell called this year’s scholars “a great bunch.”

“I think it’s going to be really fun to watch this group because like Shelley Tierce mentioned when she was speaking, we changed up the selection process this year,” she said. 

After an in-house committee narrowed down the nominees to “this massive pile of names,” letters were sent out to notify parents and ask students to write an essay on why the committee should pick them as a GateKey Scholar, Bell said.

“The essays that came back were incredible and so those students that took the time to write the essay were then moved on to a panel interview,” she said. “It was absolutely phenomenal to hear the kids because you hear so much that you don’t see on paper, and we got to hear about how their heart is with giving back in the community. Some of them already have rock-solid plans. They just didn’t know how to make them happen.”

Bell encouraged all the scholars to heed the advice of keynote speaker Andy Espinoza, the poster child for the GateKey program.

“All you GateKey Scholars, really pay attention to him because he figured it out, and he did everything the right way,” she said. “He took advantage of every opportunity that came his way.”

Espinoza, who graduated from CHS in 2013 and from Georgia State University in 2016 with Bachelor of Science in nursing, told the students about a difficult childhood that included living in government housing and motels and how he’s now two years into his career as a surgical transplant ICU nurse at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta. 

“If you really put in the work, you’re going to be more successful than your other peers,” he said. “You can be a genius and lazy, and that’s always going to lead to failure, but if you put in the hard work, that’s always going to lead to success. I promise you that.”

He also told them to stay focused, develop good habits and be prepared for some failure “because it’s going to come.”

And he encouraged them to use all the resources that are available to them to help them achieve their dream.

“I think that all the scholars would agree when I say that the GateKey program is more than just a check to the school,” he said. “For me personally, it’s having access to a family and a team who will be right there behind you during all the struggles at home, at school, at work, wherever it’s needed. I don’t remember a time when Ms. Bell wasn’t there for me.”

During the ceremony, Bell and Tierce presented the 17 GateKey seniors – the program’s largest graduating class yet – with gold stoles to wear with their gowns at their May 24 graduation.

“That’s a lot,” Bell said. “That’s a lot of FAFSAs [Free Application for Federal Student Aid] and a lot of ACTs and SATs and a lot of college applications, but they’re all on it. They’ve all figured out where they’re going, and they’re ready to do it.”

The GateKey Scholars program was started by former Superintendent Dr. Howard Hinesley in 2008 with 16 students and served as the model for former Gov. Nathan Deal’s REACH Georgia program.

With this new class, there are now 145 GateKey Scholars.