First Pittsburgh Promise class to graduate this spring

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When Morgan Watkins receives her diploma today from the University of Pittsburgh, she will have a supportive crowd of familiar faces cheering her on, including her parents, two sets of grandparents, aunts and cousins.

But Ms. Watkins is aware there is another group of people whose faces she doesn't know who also have supported her efforts to earn a bachelor's degree in administration of justice and legal studies.

Those faces come from the foundations, corporations and individuals who have contributed to the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship fund.

Starting with the Pittsburgh Public Schools class of 2008, of which Ms. Watkins is a member, the fund has offered up to $5,000 a year for four years to students with a 2.0 grade point average who attend a post-secondary school.

"It's nice to know that there are people out there who don't even know me who care," said Ms. Watkins, 21, of East Hills and a graduate of Pittsburgh Schenley.

Pitt's ceremony today at the Petersen Events Center marks the beginning of commencement exercises for the first class of Promise students to graduate with four-year degrees.

In the coming weeks, 300 to 400 Promise students are expected to graduate from four-year colleges, said Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise. He won't know graduation rates -- or the exact number of graduates -- until the graduation season is over.

Students in the class of 2008 were limited to attending state and state-related universities in Pennsylvania, Community College of Allegheny County and private universities and colleges within Allegheny County. Since 2009, the list has expanded to include all colleges and universities in the state and a long list of accredited trade, technical and career schools.

The Promise has paid $25 million over the past four years for 3,200 students to attend post-secondary education, Mr. Ghubril said. Currently, there are 2,592 students receiving funds from the Promise.

Of the class of 2008, 835 students applied to use Promise funds within the first year after graduation.

This semester, about 1,000 students from the class of 2008 are receiving money from the Promise, Mr. Ghubril said. Some are using the scholarship money to attend accredited trade and technical schools.

But seeing the first group of students earn bachelor's degrees is "exciting and gratifying," said Pittsburgh Public Schools superintendent Linda Lane.

"It's just one of those things that make you smile and it reminds you why this is all totally worth it," Ms. Lane said.

Of the original 835 graduates in 2008 who used the scholarship in the first year, about 60 percent were female, and 57 percent were white. Forty-six percent were from families with incomes low enough that the federally determined estimated family contribution was zero. About 83 percent were eligible for state and federal grants. Promise and school officials say those statistics show the funds are being used by needy students who might not otherwise be able to afford college.

The first Promise student graduated a year ago from Point Park University, and two others graduated in December from Robert Morris University.

The concept of the Pittsburgh Promise was announced in December 2006 by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and then-Pittsburgh superintendent Mark Roosevelt. The men made a commitment to provide scholarships to city school graduates starting with the class of 2008 even though no money was in place.

Exactly one year later, after UPMC pledged up to $100 million, the leaders held a second press conference to announce that each high school senior with a GPA of 2.0 or above would qualify for up to $5,000 in scholarship funds for each year of post-secondary education, including colleges and trade schools.

UPMC donated $10 million outright and pledged up to $90 million more in a 10-year challenge grant in which it donates $1 for every $1.50 raised. Since the initial donation, UMPC has given the Promise fund an additional $25.7 million. The program said it has enough money for those enrolled in higher education institutions now and headed there in the next four years.

In a recent interview, Mr. Ravenstahl acknowledged that he and Mr. Roosevelt were in danger of making "a promise you couldn't keep" by announcing the program before funds were in place. But he said they started a buzz that ultimately benefited the program.

"We are excited to see the cycle come full circle. The numbers, in terms of enrollment, continue to grow each year," Mr. Ravenstahl said. He is hopeful that Promise graduates stay in Pittsburgh and work for local firms.

That's exactly what Briana Smith of the North Side is doing with her degree in professional communications and information systems from Robert Morris.

Ms. Smith, 21, who graduated in December, is employed in the technology department of PNC Financial Services, Downtown.

She said she still remembers the day during her senior year at Pittsburgh Schenley High School when the Promise was announced for certain in-state schools.

"I was really excited. I had wanted to go to Florida State, but my parents had already said no to that. I had already been thinking about Robert Morris and once that announcement was made that was the only school I applied to," Ms. Smith said.

For Ms. Smith, receiving the Promise funds means $20,000 less in student loans. "That's a huge difference," she said.

For some students in the 2012 class at Pittsburgh high schools, there will be even more money available. The 2012 graduates who have a GPA of 2.5 or higher, a 90 percent attendance record and have attended the district or one of its charter schools continuously since at least ninth grade can qualify for up to $10,000 a year in scholarship funds for a total of $40,000 for a four-year degree.

In many cases, Promise students are the first in their families to attend college.

Such is the case for Julia Cahill, 21, of the South Side, who used Promise funds to earn a bachelor of fine arts degree from Carnegie Mellon University. She graduates next month as the first in her family to earn a college degree.

"The Pittsburgh Promise was a game changer for me," Ms. Cahill said.

Ms. Cahill, a graduate of Pittsburgh CAPA, said she had also considered attending the Rhode Island School of Design. But scholarship money from CMU and the Promise pointed her to CMU.

"CMU is a university and I've had an integrated experience, so many experiences that I wouldn't have become the person I have become without them," she said.

After graduation, Ms. Cahill will work on an international feminist show that opens in September at the Mattress Factory museum of contemporary art and will be an assistant director of the pre-college art program at CMU.

Her father, David Cahill, said his family is doubly grateful to the Promise fund as his son David, a Pitt sophomore, is also a Promise recipient.

"My daughter was the first one to go to college, and we were in the dark on all of this. The cost of it blows your mind," Mr. Cahill said. "But this program really takes a load off of these young adults. You have to wonder how many of these young adults wouldn't have this opportunity without it. I hope it continues to grow."

After the initial year of funding, there was some concern that not enough of the scholarships were being pursued by minority students, particularly African-Amercian males, who accounted for about 12 percent of the initial group.

Since then, Pittsburgh schools have started programs geared toward making all students "Promise ready," and the numbers of African-American males appear to be rising slowly each year. Teams of teachers work with ninth-graders and follow them into 10th grade to make sure they have academic support so they can qualify.

"Having the Promise out there and not having them eligible makes the Promise an empty promise," Ms. Lane said.

For students graduating in the coming weeks, the Promise fund is a promise kept.

Pittsburgh CAPA graduate Megan Huerbin plans to use her bachelor's degree in film and English writing from Pitt to work for Teach for America in Sacramento, Calif.

She said the Promise money "was a nice surprise" in her senior year of high school. "I did have to pay out of pocket for some things, but the Promise sure took the edge off of that," she said.

Pittsburgh Westinghouse graduate Vanessa Thompson hopes to use the psychology degree she will get from Chatham next month to work at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic of UPMC. Eventually, she would like to go to graduate school.

Ms. Watkins hopes to work for a law firm and perhaps eventually go to law school.

She is so appreciative of the Promise funds that she received she's already started to repay the program by donating when she checks out at Giant Eagle where some stores accept donations

"I figure it's one small way that I can give back for what I got," she said.

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Mary Niederberger: mniederberger@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1590.


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