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Harris teams with schools in promise of better futureEdit

By C. Denise Johnson, New Pittsburgh Courier Staff Writer

There have been a lot of promises made about education reform. Some of them local and some—“Leave No Child Behind”—national in scope. Unfortunately, most have been broken or at best, mere rhetoric. The devastation in the urban cores across the country bear this out and Pittsburgh is no exception.

Amid this bleak background there are those who, to paraphrase Barack Obama, have “the audacity to hope” and thus announced the establishment of The Pittsburgh Promise to provide financial resources for qualifying Pittsburgh Public School graduates to continue their education beyond high school at an in-state college or university.

BREAKING IT DOWN— Pittsburgh Foundation President Grant Oliphant and Promise board chair Franco Harris explain the nuts and bolts of The Pittsburgh Promise.

When The Pittsburgh Foundation elected ex-Steeler great, entrepreneur and civic volunteer Franco Harris chairman of the board of the Promise, the New Pittsburgh Courier invited him to meet the editorial board to share his vision for making the program a reality.

The Pittsburgh Promise program was formally established at The Pittsburgh Foundation in December 2007 with a $100 million commitment from UPMC, including an initial $10 million to support the 2008 graduates from the school district. The remaining $90 million is a challenge grant, intended to spur support and contributions from all sections of the community to raise an additional $135 million.

To provide additional clarification and expand on the Promise’s potential, the football Hall of Famer brought along Grant Oliphant, president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation; Candi Castleberry-Singleton, chief diversity officer of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (which made a $100 million commitment to the Promise, which includes an initial $10 million for the Class of 2008); and Mark Roosevelt, superintendent of Pittsburgh’s public schools.

“What I like about The Pittsburgh Promise is it means a future for our kids and a future for Pittsburgh, and that’s in a number of ways,” Harris said. “It provides the financial resources available to make their future, to develop their potential and their individual skills.

“It is very important that we set a foundation of hope and of achievement,” Harris said, “and to make us realize that here in Pittsburgh the community has really taken a big step to make this possible and what the community is doing is just incredible and in what is happening here is and we’re all pretty excited about what we have in the future and for our kids.”

To be eligible for assistance, a student must maintain a cumulative 2.0 grade point average and apply for federal and state financial aid. Once an in-state school accepts a student, the resources become available up to $5,000 per year. In 2012, the cap will be $10,000.

The bottom line, Oliphant said, is that Pittsburgh needs help to stem a declining population base to stabilize the city, the region and the school system.

“The context for this is pretty simple and it comes down to the fact that Pittsburgh needs help and our kids need help,” Oliphant said. “Pittsburgh needs help in the sense that we are losing population in our core city at a shocking rate and that number has to be stabilized for a whole variety of reasons.”

Among them is the ability of the city to survive as a growing concern; another has to deal with the fact that the region can’t prosper if the city cannot prosper; the third is the school system and the inter-relationship between the schools, the city and the broader region which, Oliphant said, is lost on a lot of people too easily.

The common denominator in each instance is the ongoing reform efforts in the schools under the superintendent’s watch. In order to sustain reform, there must be some stability in the student population. The school district is losing students at a rate comparable to the population loss.

Roosevelt agreed, saying there is an “under-awareness of the reality and the consequence of the drop in school population.”

Projected estimates indicated that, if things continue at the present rate of decline, Pittsburgh will lose approximately 60,000 middle-income residents by 2014, which would lead to 12,000 fewer students enrolled in Pittsburgh public schools.

“The ripple effect from (those projected losses) would be enormous,” said the superintendent, speculating on the impact it will have on the region.

Castleberry-Singleton said the participation and support of UPMC provides an opportunity to put the rubber to the road and tangibly demonstrate UPMC’s commitment to the community and diversity.

“UPMC is really trying to do what’s in the best interest of the kids for economic development and education of the future workforce,” said Castleberry-Singleton, “whether they come to work for UPMC or the Courier.”

However, the Promise, which appears to be a “win-win” for all parties involved, does have an uphill battle.

Roosevelt shared that out-of-town PPS recruits with children have been dissuaded from relocating within the city limits by some real estate agents who reinforce a perception of PPS being “detrimental.”

Other misperceptions include that the Promise is income-based and that it is targeted to suburban whites.

The abundance of inaccurate information regarding the Promise is one of the reasons a community outreach plan is being developed that will clarify The Pittsburgh Promise and its potential to spark a regional renaissance.

The other reason for building public awareness is because there is still fund-raising to be done.

In order to fulfill its goal to affect a generation (30-40 years), an additional $150 million must be raised, which is projected to come from corporations, endowments and grants and donations from the community at-large.

Such an undertaking requires a proven and dedicated leader to oversee the day-to-day functions of the Promise. Oliphant said that they’ve identified such an individual.

Saleem Ghubril, founder and executive director of the non-profit Pittsburgh Project based on the North Side, has accepted the challenge to become the executive director of the Promise, effective Sept. 1. Bold text

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