Challenge Scholars: Free college for west side

"Class of 2020" painted on wall outside Harrison Park Elementary School in Grand Rapids. (May 5, 2014)

GRAND RAPIDS — Aidan Benedict’s parents and grandparents did not go to college. His single mom works three part-time jobs and is raising two boys.

So, the odds of the sixth-grader going to college seemed remote.

But a fledgling program known as Challenge Scholars will pay for his college, and for hundreds of kids on Grand Rapids’ west side, as long as they graduate from Union High School.

“It gives kids like me a chance to go to college for free,” Aidan said on Monday.

“It is breaking a huge cycle because in my family, we worked,” said his mother, Chi Benedict. “It was, we work, we pay the bills, just so we can feed our families, and that was it.”

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Grand Rapids Public Schools said they plan a major announcement Tuesday on fundraising for the program.

Challenge Scholars is only for students at Harrison Park Elementary and Westwood Middle School on the west side who graduate from Union High School.

The program expects to spend $2.4 million annually helping 200 kids a year go to a Michigan college or university or a trade school.

Students must first apply for financial aid. After that, Challenge Scholars will cover the balance of tuition, fees and books.

“We believe that all children deserve equal access to the same opportunity to reach their full potential,” said Challenge Scholars Co-director Gina Bovee. “That’s one reason. The second reason is that our community needs an educated workforce.”

Supporters say they’re focusing on the west side because of the need — more than half of adults didn’t go to college; nine out of 10 kids get free or discounted lunch; and it’s racially diverse — about 80 percent of students are minorities.

“For us to be able to work with families and students who are the first to go to college and help them just navigate that,” Bovee said. “They’re bright kids; they’re more than capable. They just need help on that pathway.”

Aidan’s sixth-grade class — the Class of 2020 — is first in line.

He and his classmates have already gone on college visits, and have heard from visiting professors and college presidents. The program will help parents get through the paperwork.

Already, kids’ eyes are lighting up.

“They smile and they talk about their great opportunity,” said Harrison Park Principal Troy Wilbon. “More importantly, they talk about not just about themselves. They talk about their family, and that’s huge. That’s what it’s all about. We want to build a community.”

At Harrison Park, 63 of 68 sixth-graders already have signed a promise to go to college, Wilbon said.

“My realistic goal: 100 percent,” Wilbon said. “Every day I walk in here, if I don’t have a goal of 100 percent, I shouldn’t walk in these doors. That’s my realist goal — 100 percent, and I say that with all the passion in the world.”

Aidan hopes to go to Ferris State University, to go into the music business.

“It’s very humbling to think that other people want to do this for my kid,” his mother said. For an outside person, a person that does not know my family, to want to do something like that, it gives me faith in humanity.”

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