By Robbie Owens

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DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – At Richardson’s Berkner High, STEM Academy teacher Jennifer Barbnecht poses a jaw dropping question: “Raise your hand if you have gotten a million dollars in scholarship offers… $1.5 million or better?”

What’s even more amazing is that several hands reach for the sky — and with scholarship offers in hand, now, that’s where their futures are headed as well.

“When they calculated and told me, it was the most wonderful feeling I’ve had in the world because I knew I’d found a way to pay for college,” said Riley May, 17. “I’d found a way to finally achieve my dreams and my goals.”

In a school community where some 60 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged, even the academically gifted may not go on to college.

Riley will become the first in her family to attend college… a distinction shared by roughly half of her classmates. As such, teachers said often parents are unable to help navigate the maze of college applications and financial aid… so that’s what students learn in Barbnecht’s elective class called ‘College Transition’.

“It breaks my heart when I see kids that are extremely intelligent feel like no one wants them,” said Barbnecht, who started the class five years ago. “These scholarship dollars give them a very tangible way of understanding that people want them. The have the ability to make a huge difference.”

At the beginning of the year, her students set a classroom goal of $4 million in scholarship offers. A paper chart positioned next to the classroom door tracked their progress. Just two weeks in, they needed a bigger chart. Now, the graduating STEM Academy class of 66 students has amazed some with $26 million in scholarship offers — and they’re still coming in.

“When I see them walk across that stage on graduation day and I know that they’re off to good schools and they’re not going to have to pay a dime for it? That gives me chills,” said Barbnecht.

Berkner principal Henry Hall says he believes that colleges are impressed by the STEM Curriculum that includes four years of engineering courses. “That’s very rare and colleges and universities are extremely excited when they see applications from students that have that extensive background,” said Hall.

For the first time, students throughout the Richardson school district can apply for a spot in the STEM Academy. Applications are being accepted right now.

Meanwhile, Riley plans to study nursing at a small, liberal arts college in Central Texas. She said her Mom was “freaking out” when she told her how many offers she had gathered. Her Dad, who didn’t graduate high school, had a slightly different reaction.

“He left the room for a little bit… and I think he was tearing up a little bit.”

Or a lot.

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