Pittsburgh Promise reaches most vulnerable

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Saleem Ghubril has heard the whispers. At functions with African-American leaders, they will tell him what they are hearing, “the promise is only for middle-class White kids from the suburbs,” or “it’s not reaching the poor Black students who could really benefit.” Not so, he says.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” he said. “We have 2,500 kids who’ve qualified for the Promise and more than 1,000 are African-American.”

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Ghubril, the Promise’s executive director, said not only is the program reaching the Pittsburgh school district’s most at-risk students, but more are qualifying every year even though the academic requirement to get in has been raised in each of the program’s three years.

“The number of African-American males, which in general is our most academically challenged population, has increased every year, so has the number for Black females. Meanwhile the number of White males and females is dropping,” said Ghubril. “So it’s evening out. We’re getting closer to matching the district racial demographics.”

In 2008, 77 Black males and 171 females entered the program out of a total graduating class of 1,814. In 2009, the numbers jumped to 108 Black males and 176 females out of a graduating total of 1,673. And in 2010, 115 Black males and 190 females qualified from a graduating class of 1,713.

“So the percentage for African-American males has risen from just over 13 percent to almost 18 percent in three years,” he said. “So the notion that the Pittsburgh Promise is for suburban White kids is just not accurate.”

Even though part of the Promise’s appeal is that it can draw families to the city to take advantage of the program’s scholarship funds and thereby boost the city’s and the school district’s tax base, that isn’t translating into a flood of middle-class White students winning Promise money. In fact, said Ghubril, the bulk of the Promise students, more than 62 percent, come from low- to moderate-income families,” he said.

One of the most encouraging signs he sees is how the current crop of Promise kids is serving as models for younger students. During an event in the Northview Heights public housing community three weeks ago, Ghubril ran into family members of Jahmiah Guillory.

Guillory, one of the first Promise kids, is at Penn State studying petroleum engineering, and working for Marcellus Shale driller Range Resources in the summer.

“He made more money in one summer than he had in his entire life to that point,” said Ghubril. “But the real story is his family. He has six younger siblings and all are Promise-ready. They get it, that this is their ticket out.”

Though the Promise continues to bring in funding, if it does as intended—increasing student achievement and drawing kids from outside the city—it will never be a self perpetuating endowment because the number of participants will use up the resources too quickly.

“But that was based on us raising money for 10 years and stopping in year 11, and spending the money to year 22,” he said. “We’ve decided to continue raising money after the 10th year. So instead of serving two generations, maybe we can serve four or five.”

(Send comments to cmorrow@newpittsburghcourier.com.)

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