By Martha Nodar

The Marist School’s Reach for Excellence program is gearing up to select about 30 talented, middle-school students to participate in a three-year program intended to help them obtain an additional educational grounding for higher education.

The secular, tuition-free, academic and leadership program, now about 10 years old, is open to middle school students in the metro Atlanta area with good grades, limited financial resources and strong teachers’ recommendations. Out of the approximate 120 applications the program receives a year, about 98 percent come from students attending public schools.

“When a student graduates from the program, the mission is that the student would be better prepared to succeed in a college prep high school of their choice.” said Karen Dessables, the Reach for Excellence program’s executive director.

Dessables said students apply while they are in sixth grade and “those accepted start the program as rising seventh graders the following summer.” The program ends at the end of the summer after finishing ninth grade. They attend a six-week comprehensive summer session followed by Saturday classes during the school year while they continue to attend their regular schools.

“It is truly a commitment that the student, as well as the family, makes to complete the progress,” Dessables said. “A 90 percent attendance rate must be kept and school grades must be B’s or better.”

Valinae Smith’s son, Ian, is in his second year in the program. Her daughter, Lauren, completed Reach for Excellence and now is a student at Marist.

“The program is an awesome blessing and so is Karen Dessables,” Smith said. “Ms Dessables treats these children as if they were her own. She goes above and beyond and helps us in all kinds of ways.”

Smith calls her family “a testimonial” to the program.

“Ian talks about becoming a veterinarian, and we are currently in the college-planning stage for Lauren,” she said. “Even in these hard economic times, there is hope.”
Dessables said, the idea of the Reach for Excellence program emerged as part of the celebration of Marist’s centennial almost 10 years ago. The program is funded by the Sara Giles Moore Foundation, the Society of Mary and others

“It takes many donors to make this program happen,” Dessables said. “I visit as many metro Atlanta public schools with sixth graders as possible, trying to get the information about the program to the public. I communicate with head counselors in DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb and other counties.”

Dessables said the program uses teachers from Marist as well as teachers from DeKalb, Gwinnett, the Archdiocese of Atlanta and independent schools in the Metro Atlanta area.

Miriam Fountain-Tindal heard about the program from one of her son’s teachers. She said she’s “thrilled” to have her son Brandon, a sixth grader at the DeKalb Elementary School of the Arts, take part in the program.

“He talks about going to Georgia Tech when he graduates from high school,” Fountain-Tindal said.

For more information about the program, visit