Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced a new initiative Tuesday that he hopes will enable more students to take advantage of The Pittsburgh Promise, a $40,000 scholarship designed to enable students to attend college.
In front of about 65 people at the Mount Ararat Baptist Church in Larimer, Mr. Ravenstahl said 500 "Promise coaches" will be trained to mentor young people and help make them "Promise ready."
"If [a student] isn't prepared for college, that [$10,000 per year scholarship] isn't going to work. We want to be sure that we do everything that we can to provide support, and that's what the Promise coaches program does," Mr. Ravenstahl said.
The Promise coaches will not be a traditional mentor initiative in which students are matched with a mentor.
Instead, organizations such as churches and community centers will recruit people who are already mentoring students and offer them 90-minute information sessions about everything from how to engage young people, to the details of the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship.
"We think mentors are already in students' lives," said Colleen Fedor, the executive director of Mentoring Partnership, an organization working with the city to train Promise coaches.
She said the Promise coaches are an unconventional idea because it presumes an existing relationship between mentors and students. "It's a very different model ... it's not that structured," Ms. Fedor said.
Mario Browne, the director of the University of Pittsburgh's Office of Diversity, attended the event and said he's happy about the initiative, although he called the mayor's announcement at one of the largest African-American churches in Pittsburgh "strategic."
"Anytime you can get people around a common purpose, especially our children, it is excellent," he said.
But the program has a long way to go to address the racial gap between African-American and white students who meet the Pittsburgh Promise eligibility criteria of at least a 90 percent attendance record and a 2.5 GPA.
In 2011-12, only 18 percent of African-American male high school seniors were Promise ready, compared with 68 percent of all white students and 34 percent of African-American females.
Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane echoed the mayor's excitement about the new initiative, but warned that the district is a long way off from its vision.
"Our vision is that 80 percent [of our students] will finish college or a workforce certification," Ms. Lane said. "We aren't even at 80 percent finishing high school."
Immediately after the mayor's announcement, the first 35 mentors started their training in the basement of the Mount Ararat Church.
The program is currently funded by a $100,000 grant from the Coca-Cola foundation, which should cover the cost of the first year, according to Joanna Doven, Mr. Ravenstahl's press secretary.
Ms. Doven is optimistic that the program will secure long-term funding once it demonstrates that more students can be made Promise ready because of it.
"When you start a program and it's successful, it's easier to keep it going," she said.
Alex Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org, 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @AGZimmerman.