When Pittsburgh Foundation President and CEO Grant Oliphant heard in 2006 that Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt wanted to give a college scholarship to every city schools graduate, this was his reaction: "These two men are crazy."
To many of the city's leading figures, however, the Pittsburgh Promise now seems more savvy than crazy, and Mr. Oliphant is among those firmly on board. He stood at a podium last week and announced that the Promise had exceeded its $15 million fundraising goal for the school year, despite a recession and general pullback in charitable giving.
The Promise still has a long fundraising road ahead -- another $15 million annually for eight years to leverage the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center's $90 million challenge grant.
No less daunting are the Promise's broader goals of boosting school district performance, luring people back to the city after decades of population decline and spurring neighborhood revitalization. The Promise's executive director, Saleem Ghubril, went out on a limb last week when he said he wanted to halt the population decline by 2012.
"'Confident' is too strong a word," he said when asked about the goal later. "'Great hope' is a word, a term, I'm comfortable with."
Mr. Ghubril has reasons to believe that the Promise will reach its goals and become one of the city's defining features.
One is the cross-section of Pittsburghers who have embraced the program; another is the early success of a similar program in Kalamazoo, Mich.; and a third is Mr. Ghubril's decision to take an active role in academic and neighborhood improvement efforts.
The Promise awarded its inaugural round of scholarships to 757 students who graduated from district high schools and city charter schools last year. Through 2011, the maximum scholarship is $20,000 per student. Beginning in 2012, officials hope to double that.
The Promise is linked to Mr. Roosevelt's efforts to improve the district's academics. To be eligible for Promise money, graduates must meet certain grade-point, attendance and discipline requirements.
The Promise's first report to the community, held Wednesday at the Regional Enterprise Tower, Downtown, drew a standing-room-only crowd.
Mr. Ravenstahl sat through all 90-plus minutes of the presentation, saying the Promise is as important as winning the Super Bowl and landing the G-20 summit.
UPMC sent two of its top officials to reinforce its commitment to the program and encourage others to jump on the bandwagon.
One of the city's top businessmen, David Shapira, chairman, president and CEO of Giant Eagle, attended to take the reins of a $50 million corporate fundraising campaign.
While individual donations totaled about $110,000 -- a small percentage of the money raised this year -- Mr. Ghubril said he was pleased, noting they included gifts of $5 to $500 from the families of the Promise's first scholarship recipients.
The 3 1/2-year-old Kalamazoo Promise is the model for a growing number of scholarship programs around the country, including Pittsburgh's.
Enrollment in the Kalamazoo Public Schools had been dropping since the 1960s and hit 10,172 for the 2005-06 school year. Since the Promise was announced in November 2005, enrollment is up nearly 15 percent to 11,654 -- and still climbing, said Michelle Miller-Adams, author of "The Power of a Promise: Education and Economic Renewal in Kalamazoo."
"The question is, where are the kids coming from?" she said. She estimated about 50 percent are coming from outside the immediate area.
In Pittsburgh schools, a 15 percent increase would lift enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade from 26,649 to 30,646, about 500 students less than 2005-06 levels.
A handful of businesses have moved to Kalamazoo or expanded operations there partly because of the Promise. But the impact on the housing market has been slight so far, partly because of the economic downturn and partly because of a failure to extensively market the Promise, said Dr. Miller-Adams, a visiting scholar at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research in Kalamazoo and assistant professor of political science at Grand Valley State University.
Mr. Ghubril has marketing on his mind. He has added to his staff a "benchmarks manager" who will be responsible for helping the Promise reach its goals, and that includes working with real estate agents to promote the Promise, city schools and neighborhoods.
Because of his other hats -- chairman of the education group A+ Schools and incoming chairman of the Pittsburgh Partnership for Neighborhood Development -- Mr. Ghubril is uniquely positioned to shepherd the Promise's academic and development goals.
The Promise means little to students who don't graduate from high school or can't make it through college.
So Mr. Ghubril said the program has a responsibility to encourage a higher graduation rate, get more students to take Advanced Placement courses and enroll more students in SAT preparation courses. Those strategies remain under development.
Joe Smydo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1548.