Former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris handed city high school graduates and their parents the ball this weekend-- and told them to take it to the house.
Mr. Harris was making the rounds of city high school commencements this weekend to congratulate nearly 1,000 graduates who are the first recipients of Pittsburgh Promise scholarships.
"We're here to support you at your next starting point. ... The outcome of the journey is up to you," he told Pittsburgh Brashear High School graduates on Saturday at Mellon Arena, Uptown.
Mr. Harris, chairman of the volunteer board overseeing the Promise, encouraged parents to mind their younger children's schoolwork and to make the best possible use of the scholarship program. Scholarship amounts will increase, and academic eligibility guidelines will stiffen, in future years.
"Promise to help your children plan and prepare for their future," he said.
Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and Mayor Luke Ravenstahl announced the Promise in December 2006, saying it would be a marketing tool for the city and put a college education within reach of those who otherwise would have trouble affording it.
The program got off the ground with a $10 million gift and $90 million challenge grant from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center late last year.
"There were certainly days I was more pessimistic than optimistic" about pulling off the program, Mr. Ravenstahl said before Brashear's commencement. Now, Mr. Roosevelt said, the Promise is "one of the largest scholarship programs of its kind in the country."
This year's graduates each will receive up to $5,000 annually for four years. To qualify, graduates must have a high school grade-point average of at least 2.0, they must have attended city schools or charter schools since ninth grade, and they must use the money at one of about 100 selected colleges, universities or trade schools in Pennsylvania.
By 2012, officials hope to increase the maximum award to $10,000 annually for four years. To get that amount, students will have to pass a graduation exam and meet additional requirements.
All 10 district high schools held commencements this weekend at Mellon Arena or Soldiers & Sailors Military Museum and Memorial in Oakland. Mr. Harris could not attend all 10 because some overlapped.
The district will graduate 1,850 students in all. About 1,280 are eligible for the Promise, and 90 percent have applied for the money.
Mr. Harris' participation in the commencements was a closely guarded secret until he walked through a hidden door and onto the dais in the middle of Brashear's ceremony. Before the commencement, he said he joined the Promise board because a scholarship can be a life-changing event.
"I want to get that message out," he said.
Joe Smydo can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1548.