HANCOCK COUNTY — Educators have a message they want to send to the county’s youngest learners, and it starts with $75 in the bank.

College should be an option for every student, they say, and the county’s four school districts have teamed up with area businesses to launch a new effort aimed at helping families save for higher education, whether that’s at a traditional four-year college or through a vocational program.

This month, educators unveiled plans to launch Hancock County Promise, a local leg of Promise Indiana, a statewide effort that encourages communities to help children and families begin talking about and saving for college early.

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The program establishes free CollegeChoice 529 Savings Plans for all 1,000 students expected to begin kindergarten next year in Hancock County, with some seed money to get them started. To encourage parents to begin the savings accounts for their children, local businesses have agreed to make the first $25 deposit. Hancock Regional Hospital and NineStar Connect have signed on to contribute funding to the program for the next five years; organizers are seeking additional businesses and organizations to invest.

The students will be challenged to raise the next $25. Kindergartners will be encouraged to ask family and friends to donate money to their accounts, an effort they hope engages both parents and children in the program. As a reward, a third $25 deposit will be made as a match; that investment is expected to come from the county schools’ education foundations.

This month, the county’s school boards OKed agreements to funnel the program through the Mt. Vernon business office. Organizers are submitting an application for a grant that will help cover marketing costs, as well as provide tech support for establishing the savings accounts.

Scott Shipley, director of special programs at Mt. Vernon School Corp. who is leading the program, said schools have spent the past few months working out details.

Educators want to help remove the financial barriers some children face when considering college, Shipley said. By helping to kick off the savings process early in a child’s education, schools will show students they believe their futures will be successful, he said.

Research shows students who have money set aside for college are more likely to pursue higher education and graduate, Shipley said.

Mike Burrow, president and CEO at NineStar, said the co-op will contribute at least $5,000 during the next five years to the program.

It’s a great initiative to throw support at, he said. NineStar is community focused, he said, and leaders always try to give back to the community that supports the co-op.

“We like to pay it forward,” he said. “This fits in with our long-term … vision in terms of how we want to contribute and give back to the community.”

In addition to establishing savings plans for students, the Hancock County Promise seeks to educate children about college early on in their educations.

Teachers will plan lessons in kindergarten classrooms next year that focus on college, Shipley said. Students will not only talk about what they want to be when they grow up; they’ll also discuss with their teachers what education they’ll need to have to land their dream job. And classrooms will visit Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis to see a college campus.

Those initiatives, he said, will help create a college-going culture within the community so all children who want to pursue a degree after graduating high school will believe they can.

“We believe every single one of our children in our schools is capable of post-secondary education,” Shipley said. “We want families to think beyond kindergarten.”

Local parents applaud the program, saying the effort will make saving for college easier.

Greenfield resident Sarah McAmis’ daughter, Vivienne, is just 3 years old, but her family has been saving for her to go to college since she was born.

Her grandfather established a 529 savings plan for her, and her parents make contributions toward it annually.

McAmis said she knows it will make paying for college easier, and she plans to start a second account through the Hancock County Promise when her daughter starts school at Greenfield-Central.

She hopes setting aside the money for Vivienne will encourage her to go to college because she won’t have to worry as much about cost.

“It’s a fabulous program,” McAmis said. “Without a savings plan, college isn’t guaranteed, and without college, financial security isn’t guaranteed. It’s a cycle.”

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Samm Quinn is a reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. She can be reached at 317-477-3275 or squinn@greenfieldreporter.com.