GRPS: Challenge Scholars gains interest on West Side

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Grand Rapids Community Foundation has raised $27.2 million towards their $32 million goal to send some Grand Rapids Public Schools students to college for free.

The big announcement for the Challenge Scholars program came out in May and in the past few months, GRPS officials said the program has garnered a lot of interest.

“We are getting some families calling us saying, ‘How do I become part of this? Where do I have to live? What’s the attendance boundary?’” said John Helmholdt, who is the executive director of communications for GRPS.

About 200 students set to graduate from Union High School in 2020 will be the first Challenge Scholars class.

The program is based on grades, attendance, behavior and involvement, and kids must start at either Westwood Middle School or Harrison Park Elementary School and go on from there.

Helmholdt said realtors have even contacted GRPS to learn more about the program to better market Grand Rapids’ West Side.

While the Challenge Scholars program will pay for 200 students a year to attend college for free, it shares similarities with the Kalamazoo Promise.

The Kalamazoo Promise offers free college to students district-wide.

Their program improved enrollment numbers by 22 percent since it was put into place more than eight years ago.

Helmholdt said the Challenge Scholars program may help to boost enrollment in GRPS.

“Stocking, Sibley, C.A. Frost, these are schools that are in the feeder pattern for Westwood Middle and Union High,” Helmholdt said. “They could finish at Stocking and go on to Westwood and in the Challenge Scholars track.”

The principal of West Catholic High School, also on Grand Rapids’ West Side, said the Challenge Scholars program will be positive for the entire area.

“If we get a large chunk of the West Side kids thinking [about] college, in the long run that improves the property values for our parents,” Principal Cynthia Kneibel said. “I see it as a huge benefit.”

Kneibel said she doesn’t foresee the program having any negative effect on their private school enrollment numbers.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation is in the process of working to raise the remaining $4.8 million needed for the Challenge Scholars program.

Helmholdt said he knows several areas of the city have inquired about getting a similar program.

And while he said that’s always possible, it comes at a huge price tag and would require more philanthropy.

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