- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 14, 2009


John Tokarski III maintained a 4.4 GPA in Pittsburgh’s Schenley High School, played three sports and took on leadership roles. Yet it appeared his dreams might burst: The $45,000-a-year tuition for the private college he wanted to attend was too steep.

“We said, if you meet these rules, if you obtain these goals, you reach these objectives, everything will fall into place,” said his father, John Tokarski Jr. “I felt like I had lied to him, like I had come up short in my promise to him, because he did it all, and it looked as if we weren’t going to be able to do it.”

Then, in March, a news headline - “Pittsburgh Promise expands” - flashed across the father’s laptop screen. The Pittsburgh Promise scholarship now included Pennsylvania’s private colleges, not just public institutions. With other scholarships and grants, that $5,000 a year made the difference for the 17-year-old, who was determined to go to Washington and Jefferson College in nearby Washington, Pa.

The Promise, aimed at boosting academics and reversing the exodus from Pittsburgh and its public schools, is fashioned after similar efforts in Kalamazoo, Mich., and El Dorado, Ark. It’s also hoped that the Promise students will return to Pittsburgh, as John Tokarski plans, when they graduate.

After just two years, Pittsburgh’s success has not only given hope to families struggling to send their children to college, it also has piqued the interest of other cities as well.

Students who spend at least four years in Pittsburgh’s public or charter schools, maintain a 2.5 GPA and 90 percent attendance can qualify for up to $5,000 a year for any Pennsylvania college. In 2012, that will increase to $10,000 for students who spend all 12 years in the Pittsburgh system.

With the collapse of the steel industry 30 years ago, the population of Pittsburgh and its public schools plummeted as people fled in search of jobs. The city’s population of 424,000 in 1980 plunged to just over 311,000 in 2007; the school district lost nearly one-third of its students from 1988 to 2008.

And enrollment is expected to keep dropping - from some 26,600 today to 22,000 by 2015. But that trend appears to be slowing, thanks to the Promise.

Who left? The affluent, the educated and the young, said Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise. Who stayed? Lower-income families, the elderly and the less educated.

The result? As enrollment declined, the number of poor rose. Now, more than 70 percent of the city’s public school population is poor, as measured by free- and reduced-school-lunch participation - exceeding the 64 percent average in the nation’s 100 largest school districts.

These trends convinced Superintendent Mark Roosevelt he needed a turnaround to keep Pittsburgh’s schools competitive.

So he turned to Kalamazoo, a Rust Belt town of some 72,000 people that also had been hit by drastic population loss and economic decline after heavy industry’s collapse. Kalamazoo’s pioneering scholarship program began in 2005, annually awarding between $2 million and $3 million in anonymously funded scholarships.

Kalamazoo credits it for bringing down dropout rates, driving up home values and spurring investment. Within two years, 400 families from other Michigan communities relocated to the city, and the district gained 1,000 students, the district says.

In El Dorado, home to fewer than 20,000, district enrollment rose by 5 percent and real estate values increased by 8 percent after a Promise program was adopted.

In the Pittsburgh Promise’s second year, the school district is seeing its enrollment decline slow. After five years of dropping by about 1,400 students annually, the enrollment loss for 2009-10 is expected to be just 500.

In 2006, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl and Mr. Roosevelt announced the Promise, saying it needed $250 million. A year later, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center announced a $100 million commitment, payable over 10 years. The class of 2008 was the first to benefit.

“Remarkable. Amazing. Unprecedented,” said Mr. Ghubril, calling UPMC’s donation one of the largest ever made to a public school district in the United States.

While the Promise is not a “silver bullet,” it could help reverse the trends, said John Ellis, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Foundation, the caretaker of the Promise.

And the data tell the story:

• A boy from a low-income family, who had a 1.4 GPA and had settled for community college, buckled down and earned the 2.0 GPA required for the Promise. Now, he has completed his freshman year at a state university - getting straight-A marks both semesters.

• A couple moved from a suburb about 50 miles from Pittsburgh so their 2-year-old daughter can attend the public schools, beginning in kindergarten, making her eligible for the full scholarship.

• In each of the five years preceding the Promise, more than 500 students left the district by February. This year, only 86 left.

• Ninety-four percent of the Promise students who attended college in the fall re-enrolled in the spring.

• One college says 74 percent of the Promise students who completed the spring semester have already enrolled for fall classes - about 10 to 15 percentage points higher than average.

• After taking the Promise scholarship into consideration, an external firm that projects Pittsburgh’s enrollment now expects a slower decline by 2015. “We’re told that what is making the city right now attractive … are the reform efforts of our public school system … and then the promise of a scholarship for their children,” Mr. Ghubril said.

Other cities, including Denver and Detroit, have partial programs or are considering them. Mr. Ghubril flew to Racine, Wis., to discuss the program and has spent hours on the phone with officials in Cincinnati, Cleveland and Kansas City.

In March, the Pittsburgh Promise announced its expansion, increasing the number of eligible schools from about 100 to some 240.

This move, heralded in that news story on his dad’s computer, meant John Tokarski III could use the Promise to attend Washington and Jefferson, the college he believed offered him the perfect medley: a prestigious chemistry program, a football team, a campus near Pittsburgh and people he liked.

The teenager said he first became familiar with W&J; as a high school sophomore at a leadership seminar on campus.

“I was looking at a school I could play football at, too,” he said, proudly displaying in his room the high school football trophy he was awarded for having the highest GPA on the team.

He hopes to return to Pittsburgh after he gets his chemistry degree. He will return to a city whose focus after the collapse of the steel industry has largely been based in the sciences, health and technology fields.

His dad encourages him to return: “Families who care, who value education, or raise children who value education and value the worth of this scholarship … they need to come back and give back for what they got the opportunity to have.”

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