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What's next for The Pittsburgh Promise?





"We have three friends who are going to infuse new energy into our lives," announced Saleem Ghubril, executive director of The Pittsburgh Promise, on April 22.
 
The Promise this year is finally seeing the effect of the 3,800 college scholarships it has awarded to Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) students since 2008, with 600 of the students graduating from colleges. But fundraising toward the Promise's $250 million goal plateaued last year at $160 million in pledges.
 
Now, said Ghubril, the Promise begins Phase II, dubbed "Now Fulfilling The Promise for Years to Come" – "with emphasis on the first word, 'now,'" he added. Phase II adds a committee of top names on the city's sports and business worlds to the Promise's campaign to raise the remaining $90 million, led by Giant Eagle head David Shapira and retired Mellon leader Marty McGuinn.
 
It also adds $1 million pledges from American Eagle Outfitters and Mylan, establishing a scholarship in each company's name, and extends the time the Promise has to raise enough money to gain UPMC's full $100 million pledge in matching funds, made at the beginning of the Promise in 2007.
 
If such a fundraising goal can be met, then 26,000 kids will get scholarships in the future, Ghubril said. "This is, after all Pittsburgh's promise to Pittsburgh's kids."
 
Ghubril, who discussed the future of the Promise prior to the day's announcement, likes what he sees in the Promise's effects so far -- particularly "how well they're doing in college: the breathtakingly high retention rate that is equal or double any national cohort," he said.
 
The Promise now offers $40,000 to city kids who maintain a 2.5 GPA and a 90-percent attendance level. "What we're trying to do is obviously help our kids get jobs after they've completed their education," Ghubril added. To that end, the Promise has instituted or is taking part in several new programs to help local companies get access to this young talent, as well as "to keep our residents and grow our population."
 
The Promise's Career Launch events, held in January and June, link Promise recipients with local companies. Ghubril said he approached the nearly 70 Pittsburgh businesses that already support the Promise and told them: "'You help send these kids to college; don't you want to be the first to interview them?' The answers were a resounding yes."


The Career Launches include reverse networking, a kind of corporate speed dating in which company representatives move from table to table, talking to groups of students. Communications majors, for instance, got better ideas from how certain companies and industries might employ them. All participants learn from panels where energy, finance and other local growth-industry reps talk about opportunities in the region. And they also learn job-hunting skills through job interview and resume-writing workshops. Ghubril said these events have already helped more than 300 participants get jobs at such places as UPMC, Range Resources, Dollar Bank, United Way, BNY Mellon and the Pittsburgh mayor's office.
 
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl also instituted a Promise Coaches program to help ensure Pittsburgh students are "Promise ready."
 
"It centers around the mission of the Promise, to get basically as many adults as possible, regardless of their walk of life," to aid city students, Ghubril explained. "It could be a coach, a police officer, a neighbor. While they are interacting with the child, they can ask the child: Are you on the pathway to the Promise? Do you have a 2.5 grade-point average? Do you need any help getting your homework done? The aim is to create a college-going culture in our city."
 
To deepen the diversity among Promise recipients, the Promise is partnering with several groups, led by Vibrant Pittsburgh, to bring more Latino families to the city and its school district.
 
"As a region, we are missing out on some of the great opportunities and entrepreneurship that comes with immigrants," Ghubril said, pointing out that the largest minority population in the U.S. is Latino now, at about 16 percent of the total, whereas the Pittsburgh region has only 4 percent Latinos. Such similarly sized cities as Portland, Minneapolis and Milwaukee have new immigrant populations of about 11-12 percent, which is fueling their growth and vitality, he added.
 
Pittsburgh is even being beaten by central Pennsylvania in this area. The new recruitment effort attempts to sell our region to Latino families who are already in the country, first, and later will target immigrants from outside the borders. Its television advertisements promote Pittsburgh's affordable cost of living, available jobs, good housing stock in select neighborhoods, and of course the Promise.
 
They feature a Colombian pediatrician at UPMC's Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, a Dominican engineer at a local transportation company, a Puerto Rican headhunter and a Cuban plumbing-business owner, as well as the son of a Pirates legend, Roberto Clemente Jr., all talking about how much Pittsburgh means to them.
 
"We call that our welcoming strategy," Ghubril said. The "attraction strategy" will center around a Cinco de Mayo event that includes the Pittsburgh Marathon, a Pirates games and a reception.
 
Overall, he said, the Promise set out to do three things: Create opportunities for young people, reform city schools and improve the quality of life in our neighborhoods.
 
"There have been some schools that have been absolute tough nuts to crack," he allowed. "That's been both frustrating and sad … I feel like today, in Pittsburgh Public Schools, 30 percent of our schools are operating at beautifully high levels, competitive with any schools in our region." Another 30 percent are running at average to above average levels, he said, but "we still have our kids in 40 percent of our schools that have not budged like we need them to budge.
 
"It does not mean that kids in those buildings cannot get a great education," he cautioned. Kids who are self-motivated and have parental support will get a great education in tougher circumstances. The situation is less clear for other kids. To effect a deeper and longer term change will take more years of working closely with PPS, he said.
 
As for telling whether the Promise has yet had an impact on the economic vitality of our neighborhoods, it's simply too soon to tell, he said. "This is much bigger than the Pittsburgh Promise, but this is also much bigger than Pittsburgh Public Schools.
 
"We're an agency aiming at the macro level, for system change, but our effect is more at the grassroots level" – so far "The 3,800 [scholarship recipients] will become our workers, our doctors and engineers, our gas driller, our senators and mayors."
 
As Marty McGuinn, the new Corporate Committee chair, told the crowd on April 22: "The Promise is the most important thing going on in our community right now … Parents can count on this in our years ahead."

Photographs copyright Brian Cohen
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