The Pittsburgh Promise: Making the Grade
Enrollment for the 2009-2010 school year declined by just 2% as compared to a 5.7% enrollment decline for the previous six years. The number of children enrolled in kindergarten increased by 39 students in the fall of 2009, which was the first jump in several years.
There he was three years ago, Pittsburgh Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril, on the North Side, in Oliver High School, trying to sell this new idea, the Pittsburgh Promise
, to a group of school kids. Stay in school, he preached the gospel, make good grades, and we'll give you a $20,000 scholarship. Free money, $5,000 a year for four years. All you have to do is go to a Pennsylvania university, college, two-year school, technical school -- virtually anything -- and make the grades. And the money's all yours, no payback, no strings attached.
Needless to say, Ghubril got everyone's attention, no one more than Jamiah Guillory. At the time, Jamiah was what Ghubril recalls as a "classic high-risk, dead-end kid." Beginning his senior year with low grades, and less hope, Jamiah was one of eight children living with a single mother in the Northview Heights public housing complex. Staring down the gun barrel of a 1.7 GPA, he needed a 2.25 to cop the cash.
Meekly, he asked Ghubril if he had a chance.
Whipping out his trusty calculator, Ghubril did some quick math. Well, he demurred, "it's still mathematically possible for you to get your GPA up." What that meant was that Guillory had to ace everything for the rest of the year. Which the young man did, just clearing the bar with a 2.28. So emboldened, and armed with his scholarship money, Guillory went to Penn State, there to major in petroleum and natural gas engineering. At last report, his grades were a 3.5.
"The Pittsburgh Promise removed a lot of natural burdens without financial support," Jamiah says. Now a Pittsburgh Promise motivational speaker himself, Guillory has taken his message to such city high schools as Peabody, Carrick, Langley, and Oliver. "My talks," he says, "are received with open arms because I encourage students who aren't doing well. 'Just go out and perform to the best of your ability,' I tell them, 'in school and everyday life.'
"Life in Pittsburgh is difficult from the community where I come from," he adds. "To embrace the positive is very difficult. But it's something that has a high reward."
"The odds against him seemed pretty enormous," Ghubril says of his young star. "It's a remarkable story."
What may be even more remarkable is that the Pittsburgh Promise is aimed directly at combating what are arguably Pittsburgh's two worst trends. With city population eroding for decades, there's been a concomitant drop in public school enrollment. To stand in the breach, Pittsburgh has taken one of the boldest -- and most visionary -- steps in its history. Now, having upped the ante since Guillory entered the program, the Pittsburgh Promise offers a $40,000 college scholarship for every child who has a 90 percent attendance record and at least a 2.5 GPA, graduates from a public high school, and attends a Pennsylvania post-secondary institution for a four-year, associate, or technical degree.
Created by the Pittsburgh Foundation
, with $100 million in seed money coming from UPMC
at the end of 2007 that was supplemented by community-based matching funds, 2008 saw the Pittsburgh Promise's first class of scholars. Only two years old, and on the cusp of the Class of '10, and already 1,600 students have received scholarships.
Not only is that a victory, Ghubril says, "but our kids are doing better in terms of college retention. Taking a full-time course load, maintaining at least a 2.0 GPA, our numbers exceed 80 percent."
In the public schools, he adds, "there's an uptick in enrollment for the first time in decades. As a region, we've also experienced a positive movement in migration for the first time in two decades -- in part because of our efforts. All in all, we're recalibrating the conversation about public education in the city, and about the aspirations of kids."
Oliver High School English teacher Derek Long sees those aspirations every day. "We are really pushing being Promise-ready," he says. "At Oliver, a lot of kids hadn't thought about going to college. But with the Promise a lot of that is changing. As high as 85-90 percent of the kids have said, 'yeah, this is something I can do.' In the classroom, the kids are more focused. They realize there's life after high school. It's giving them an opportunity they never thought they could have." He pauses. "In 17 years, hopefully my one-year-old son will be filing out the paperwork for the Promise."
At Carrick, guidance counselor Terry Cowden has seen the changes as well. "In three years, both attitude and behavior have gotten better. As has attendance. The Promise has changed everything for them."
As but one example, Cowden cites a student who struggled as a freshman. Then the Promise came along in her sophomore year. "She got a grip on what she had to do to -- and this year the Promise is making it possible for her to go to LaRoche College
." Cowden considers: "If it weren't for the Promise I don't know if she would have made that drastic turnaround."
Theresa Walsh has seen what the Promise has done in her own home. Her daughter Sarah, one of the first Promise recipients, is two years into a business degree at Robert Morris University
. "We couldn't have afforded college without the extra help," Theresa says. "It was such a blessing.
"I'm just an average parent," she adds, a multi-task mom, a teacher's aide at Pioneer school, whose husband works for Port Authority
maintenance. With three children, they never could have afforded college. Sarah, their oldest, "is working hard," she says, "getting good grades to keep the Promise. That's vital to her." She pauses. "She sees hope for the future."
"The motto we use is 'dream big, work hard,' Ghubril says, adding that you can't start too early. After bringing his satchel full of funds to high school students, he realized that for many high school is too late. "I've begun the conversation with children at a young age," he says, "middle and elementary schools." Not so long ago, for example, he spoke to first graders at Grandview Elementary about the Promise. "It has an impact on making choices. I'm banking on it."Sign up
to receive Pop City weekly.Abby Mendelson's latest book, End of the Road, a collection of short stories, is available at amazon and bn.com.This story was first published in June, 2010.
Captions, from the top: Saleem Ghubril; Derek Long; Terry Cowden, with students Keilynn Burkes and Stephanie Cipollone; Theresa Walsh (center) with daughters Melissa and Sarah; Saleem GhubrilPhotographs copyright Brian Cohen