These are heady times for Pittsburgh. Repeatedly acclaimed as "most livable" and touted nationally for converting a rust-belt economy into a modern center of financial services, high technology and health care, we are proud of what has been accomplished here over the past three decades.
Yet let's not delude ourselves about the challenges that remain. Despite our gains, for many years now the city of Pittsburgh population has been aging and declining. As the urban anchor of our region, Pittsburgh's prosperity affects all of us in southwestern Pennsylvania. And the city's economic success now and into the future is linked inextricably to the quality of our public schools.
The public schools are a core attraction -- or deterrent -- to the population we want to grow and retain. Beyond the obvious ties to property values and tax base, excellent public schools contribute to the vibrancy and creative vigor of a city and are a draw to engage young adults and parents in civic involvement and community service. Pittsburgh's public school system educates the largest number of our region's students, thus providing a training ground for our future workforce.
The Pittsburgh Public Schools finally have gotten serious about reversing decades of decline. Under the leadership of Superintendent Mark Roosevelt and a school board that is committed to excellence, a substantive reform effort is under way. What better testament to this progress than the recently announced $40 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to support teacher effectiveness?
UPMC, the city of Pittsburgh and a growing number of proud partners also have come together to create The Pittsburgh Promise, a bold initiative that seeks to move Pittsburgh -- and therefore the region -- to the next level of success by improving its core of public education. We are co-chairing the fund-raising for The Pittsburgh Promise because we believe the Promise can be transformational.
On the surface the Promise is simply a program to provide college and trade-school scholarships to every child who lives in the city for at least the last four years of high school and graduates from Pittsburgh Public Schools with a minimum grade-point average of 2.5.
But its goals are far-reaching. The Promise affirms the inherent dignity of, and offers hope, inspiration, and opportunity to, urban school children who otherwise might not have considered the possibility of college. In doing so, the Promise is expected to increase the district's high-school graduation rate, which currently stands at 64 percent, compared to 74 percent for the rest of the state.
The Promise works with a number of community programs to provide mentoring, college-readiness skills and career counseling. It has an advising program at the Community College of Allegheny County to help Promise scholars reach their academic goals. The Pittsburgh Promise is a pathway to success for our public-school students.
Further, by offering families better schools and an incentive to stick with them, we hope to stimulate a reverse in the decline of both city and public-school populations. All of this should lead to deployment of a well-prepared and energized work force to fuel our region's economic growth.
It is hard to overstate the potential social and economic impact of The Pittsburgh Promise. Currently, 27.6 percent of Pittsburgh's population holds a college degree. According to a recent study commissioned by CEOs For Cities, if we can grow this number by a mere 1 percentage point, our region's income would grow by $1.8 billion annually. This means the Promise also meets the enlightened self-interest of business leaders.
We already are seeing signs of success. In just year two of the program, Pittsburgh Promise scholars' college retention rates are higher than those of their pre-Promise predecessors. More high school seniors are applying for post-secondary education. Teachers report that the Promise is spurring students to study harder. And although we have not yet turned around enrollment drops, the Pittsburgh Public Schools recently announced better-than-expected figures and even an increase in the number of students entering kindergarten.
The statistics are impressive but far more so are the stories of students whose lives have changed. We met a young man who was a C student into his junior year, when the Promise was launched. He had to earn straight As from then until graduation to qualify for the scholarship money. Not only did he accomplish that, he has gone on to be a 4.0 student in college.
We are so grateful to UPMC for its remarkable investment of $100 million in matching funds and to the foundations, corporations and individuals who are contributing to the Promise or plan to do so in the future. We are not afraid of the fund-raising challenge ahead. It is clear that our community still has the capacity to think boldly and act decisively. This is a new renaissance -- of people rather than buildings and infrastructure. Together we can create our future. And that's a promise!
David Shapira (CEO of Giant Eagle Inc.) and Cynthia Shapira are co-chairs of the Committee of 100 of The Pittsburgh Promise. Additional co-chairs who signed this article are David Malone (CEO of Gateway Financial Group), Nancy Malone and Anne Lewis (an owner of Oxford Development Co.