$26M raised for GR free college program

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Community Foundation has raised $26 million for a program to send Grand Rapids Public Schools students who live on the city’s West Side to college for free.

The Challenge Scholars program is available to Harrison Park Elementary and Westwood Middle School students to go on to graduate from Union High School. It’s expected to send 200 students to a Michigan college for free each year at a cost of about $2.5 million.

“Half the battle is to believe that these children can do it, to set high expectations and then to give them the support,” Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal said Tuesday. “And that’s what we’re doing with this.”

The Union High School Class of 2020 will be the first to benefit from Challenge Scholars.

The $26 million raised by the the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, announced Tuesday, will help fund the effort for every Union High School class after that.

The Challenge Scholars program shares some traits with the Kalamazoo Promise, which has been putting Kalamazoo Public Schools students district-wide through college for free for nearly a decade.

Among those students is Kiosha Blaylock, who goes to Michigan State University and said the Promise “made a big difference.” She had just moved into the KPS district when the Promise was announced.

“The single biggest impact of the Kalamazoo Promise has been to reverse decades of declining enrollment in the Kalamazoo Public schools,” Michelle Miller-Adams, who has researched and written about the Promise, said.

In the 8.5 years since the Promise launched, enrollment in KPS has jumped 22% from 10,238 in 2005-2006 to 12,457 this school year.

In the same time period, GRPS enrollment has declined by nearly the same percentage, going from 20,518 in 2005-2006 to 15,983 this school year.

Miller-Adams said the Promise has attracted more students to KPS and helped retain them, which translates to more funding from the state.

“It’s allowed the district to maintain and expand a lot of the programs particularly, those programs that help prepare kids for college,” she said. “We’ve seen a large expansion of advanced placement programs, college readiness programs.”

Blaylock said the Promise changed student behavior, too.

“I noticed a lot of the students who weren’t trying started trying after they found out about the Promise,” she said.

It has yet to be seen what effect Challenge Scholars, which is available only to some students rather than the entire district like the Promise, will have on GRPS enrollment.

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