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Joanna Pacheco's family always supported her plans to go to college, but the ins and outs of high school transcripts, university applications, financial aid forms and entrance exams were foreign to them.

The dream was real but the reality was decidedly foggy.

"I always knew I wanted to get an education, but my family didn't really know how to take the next step to get there," Pacheco, 18, said.

As a sophomore at Elsie Allen High School, her counselor led her to an organization called 10,000 Degrees. Based in Marin, the nonprofit supports underprivileged students from as young as eight years old through college graduation, assisting with applications, campus selection, financial aid, exam preparation and navigating college life with the help of a mentor.

The group targets socio-economically disadvantaged students and those who are the first in their family to attend college. About $2 million is given annually to local students who meet federal poverty guidelines and those funds are used to attract matching scholarships from other organizations, said 10,000 Degrees CEO Kim Mazzuca.

"We want to get the financial aid into the hands of the students who need it most," she said.

The organization, established in 1981, in July launched a partnership with the Community Foundation to expand its operation in Sonoma County.

In 2009, the program began pilot operations at Sonoma Valley, Casa Grande, Healdsburg, Roseland University Prep and Elsie Allen high schools but the creation of Scholarship Sonoma County under the direction of the Community Foundation marks an ambitious plan to grow the program's reach.

"Community Foundation is launching Scholarship Sonoma County because (we) recognize the need for scholarship funds among those with financial need far greater than the resources we have historically awarded," said Lisa Carre?, executive director of Scholarship Sonoma County.

In the deal, 10,000 Degrees will run the program and the Community Foundation will spearhead a push to distribute $2 million in scholarships annually within five years.

The Community Foundation currently gives about $200,000 a year in college scholarships — the majority of which are merit based and don't take into account a family's financial situation, Carre? said.

"We really exist for those students and those families who can't afford these kinds of services and the fact of the matter is, that population is growing," Mazzuca said.

On Wednesday, the group is expected to seek permission from Santa Rosa City Schools trustees to expand into Piner High School in the current school year.

"Not only do they support students financially throughout their college career, but they begin in high school, explaining all of the sometimes assumed information you need to get into college," said Socorro Shiels, superintendent of Santa Rosa City Schools. "Things that for families who haven't had other family members go to college sometimes are a mystery. While we stress it in our schools, it cannot be overcommunicated."

10,000 Degrees begins its outreach with third graders, taking socio-economically disadvantaged students on college campus tours. Eventually parents are invited to information sessions when students are in middle school, and in high school the real push begins.

Students apply to attend a six-day dormitory experience on a college campus in the summer before their junior year during which students are immersed in information not only about the university experience but how to get there.

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"I got to experience college life," said Dayane Mendoza, a Sonoma Valley High graduate who is now a freshman at Sonoma State University. "We went to our classes, we stayed in the dorms; there were classes on SAT and ACT prep."

"Through that program I was introduced to a lot of things," she said. "That's when I learned I was a first generation college student and what it really meant."

The program partners students with mentors who are on hand to guide students through the normal hurdles of college life — registration, financial aid renewal, major selection and others.

About 500 students who are involved with 10,000 Degrees currently are enrolled in college, 200 of whom attended the college stay before their junior year, Mazzuca said. About 30 of those students are from Sonoma County, she said.

"We believe that all students should have a chance to go to college," Mazzuca said. "All students don't need to go to college, but the fact of the matter is, they don't have that choice right now."

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)