Vanessa Thompson, a senior at Chatham University, is a poster child -- literally and figuratively -- for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship fund, which provides money for Pittsburgh Public Schools high school students who meet academic and attendance standards.
She will be among the first class of "Promise" students to graduate from a four-year college this spring, when she receives her degree in psychology and religion, and she has her sights set on continuing her education to attain a Ph.D. Without the scholarship, Vanessa said, she and her mother feared she wouldn't be able to afford college.
"With the Pittsburgh Promise, I am able to dream big," Vanessa told a crowd that assembled Monday to hear the third annual report on the scholarship fund. "It helped to know so many people care about me."
Vanessa, who is featured on billboards for the Pittsburgh Promise, was referring to the program's motto: "Dream Big. Work Hard."
The annual report was presented Monday at Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, Downtown, and the event was attended by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, fund chairman Franco Harris and Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane, along with several dozen supporters.
The fund currently has $147 million in pledges, of which $74 million has been paid, said executive director Saleem Ghubril. That means the fund can meet its financial obligations to the approximately 3,200 Pittsburgh students currently enrolled in higher education with Pittsburgh Promise funding and to those who are headed there in the next four years, Mr. Ghubril said.
The number of financial supporters has grown since the first year to 38 foundations from 25, and to 102 corporations from 34.
The largest corporate pledge comes from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, which has set aside $100 million in matching funds. UPMC donates $1 for every $1.50 raised by the scholarship fund.
In the 2010-11 school year, the scholarship fund raised $12.3 million, which leveraged a matching contribution of $8.2 million from UPMC. That total exceeded the previous year, when $11.3 million was raised and matched by $7.6 million from UPMC.
Both years, funding fell short of the ambitious goal of $15 million per year. But Mr. Ghubril said the fund is extremely stable at this point. The ultimate goal is to raise $250 million by 2018.
The goal of the fund was to stop the city's population loss by giving families incentive to keep their children in Pittsburgh schools and to increase high school and college graduation rates among city students.
In the fund's first year, qualifying students were able to receive up to $5,000 a year for college. Seniors this year can get up to $10,000 a year for college tuition if they have a 2.5 grade point average and a 90 percent attendance rate. About 78 percent of the class of 2010 who were eligible used the fund, up from 58 percent of the class of 2008.
Of the students currently enrolled in higher education with Pittsburgh Promise scholarships, 41 percent are male and 59 percent are female. The breakdown along racial lines is 41 percent African American, 53 percent white and 5 percent other races, according to Gabriella Gonzalez, chief researcher at the RAND Corp., which the Pittsburgh Promise hired to study its results.
Mr. Ghubril said Pittsburgh Promise and district officials are hoping to increase the number of males who take advantage of the program to 50 percent and the number of African-American students to 57 percent, which accounts for their percentage of the district's population.
The RAND study also showed that in terms of retention, the Pittsburgh Promise students are performing "equal to or higher than their cohorts in Pennsylvania and nationally," that student enrollment in the Pittsburgh schools has stabilized and there has been a steady increase in college enrollment since the Pittsburgh Promise funds became available.
The Pittsburgh Promise was co-founded by Mr. Ravenstahl and former Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Mark Roosevelt. Mr. Ravenstahl said when he and Mr. Roosevelt announced the idea, he didn't imagine that such a large group of supporters would be organized in such a short time. He noted that the national 2011 PromiseNet conference for school officials interested in Promise initiatives will be held in Pittsburgh Oct. 19-21.
"In three short years what we've achieved is really remarkable," Mr. Ravenstahl said. "Talk about a single mother raising a child and what $40,000 means. Talk about a family of four [children] and what $160,000 means."
Perry Traditional Academy senior Mark Byars, who will use Pittsburgh Promise funding to attend college next fall, was more than willing to talk about it.
"It's not every day that someone says 'I want to give you $40,000 and you never, ever have to pay me back,' " he said.
Mary Niederberger: firstname.lastname@example.org ; 412-851-1512.