Tuition grants a lure for city schools

Plan aims to put students in college, draw people to city

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Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette
Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, left, listens as Pittsburgh public schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt describes plans for the Pittsburgh Promise initiative during a news conference yesterday.
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If you attend and graduate from the Pittsburgh Public Schools and stay out of trouble, you won't have to worry about how to pay for college or other postsecondary education.

That's the promise made by schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl yesterday. They're calling it The Pittsburgh Promise, and though details are still sketchy, they say it will be in place for 2008 graduates.

"We are absolutely 100 percent committed to making this happen, and we will make it happen," the superintendent said.

Mr. Roosevelt faces the task of putting together a program that would involve increased involvement in students' long-term education planning. Mr. Ravenstahl must be the fund-raiser-in-chief and woo a foundation community that isn't yet sold on the concept.

The yet-unfunded effort would help families and children "plan, prepare and pay for education after high school," Mr. Roosevelt said. "What we will be saying to kids in the Pittsburgh Public Schools is, if you play by the rules, and you do what you're supposed to do, and you do your work, and you graduate ... there will be education after high school in your future, and money will not be what holds you back."

The mayor called the promise "a college access program ... as well as a revitalization strategy for us in the city of Pittsburgh." He predicted that it would encourage parents already living in the city to stay.

"Not only will they not move out," he said, "I'm confident that families, middle-income families, and families that value education will move into the city of Pittsburgh when we have this up and running."

The plan is patterned in part on an effort launched in 2005 in Kalamazoo, Mich. That city's school district has reversed attendance declines and seen increased home sales since it promised all graduates college tuition.

City staff became aware of it, and Grants and Developments Director Bernie Lynch made contact with Kalamazoo schools officials. Mr. Roosevelt got his High School Reform Task Force involved. Then city and school leaders approached foundations, which could be tapped for $5 million to $7 million a year.

"It's been very well received by the foundation community," Mr. Ravenstahl said.

Foundations that typically fund educational efforts weren't ready to sign on yesterday.

"Nothing is more vital to the city's future than the educational opportunities available for our children, and the mayor and superintendent are to be commended for their focus," Heinz Endowments President Max King indicated in a written statement. "While we haven't had an opportunity to study this issue in any depth, we look forward to working with these officials to examine its potential."

The details will be hashed out in discussions among the task force, the mayor's development staff and presumably foundation and corporate check-writers. Mr. Roosevelt outlined basic concepts.

"It's about helping kids envision the future, so we're going to start as early as the end of elementary school, helping kids to understand that in today's world, some education after high school is pretty much required in order to participate in the increasingly stressful economy," he said.

Students will be expected to stay out of trouble, attend class, do homework and graduate. He didn't envision any grade point or income requirements.

As they approach graduation, students would get help navigating the financial aid system. They'd be expected to tap existing programs like Pell Grants, "and The Pittsburgh Promise will come in after that," he said.

The maximum level of aid might be pegged to the cost of attending a state-related university, he said.

Recipients of aid through the promise would be expected to go to school in state and maintain a certain grade point average, he said, but there would be no other strings attached.

The district graduates 2,000 students a year, and Mr. Roosevelt did not know how many go on to college or complete their degrees.

The cost of boosting those numbers could depend on how aggressively the district, its students and their parents pursue other aid sources.

Federal Pell Grants and Academic Competitiveness Grants, state programs like the Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency, subsidized student loans and tax breaks for higher-income students generally make college available to most people, said Kalman A. Chany, a financial aid consultant and author of the book "Paying for College Without Going Broke."

The biggest challenge for the district may be making students aware of what's available, he said. "The lower the income level [of the family], the higher the level of misinformation," he said.

Some don't know that a low-income student going to a high-cost college can get substantial aid, he said.For middle-income families, even those who do their homework and get financial aid can find themselves in a bind.

For instance, Ruth Howze, an East Hills single mother of four daughters, is struggling to put one through Duquesne University and another through Temple University on a corrections administrator's salary. The cost after financial aid: upwards of $6,000 a semester.

With daughters in 11th and fifth grades, she's a member of the High School Reform Task Force who pushed for The Pittsburgh Promise. "If this could be pulled off without a hitch," she said, "as a parent who shells out $6,000 to $10,000 a semester for school, I would say, thank God."


Rich Lord can be reached at rlord@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1542.


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