Setting aside the weather, Jessie Stewart says she sees a lot of similarities between the cities of Richmond and Kalamazoo, Mich.
That’s very good news for Richmond.
Stewart, who was born and raised in Kalamazoo, has been given an incredible task as executive director of the Richmond Promise Scholarship Program, a $35 million investment funding college scholarships for every high school student who lives in Richmond and North Richmond.
The program is largely inspired by the Kalamazoo Promise, a similar program started 10 years ago that has led to significant increases in academic performance, graduation and college completion rates, and decreases in dropout rates.
Richmond’s program, which begins with the Class of 2016, was made possible by a $90 million community benefits agreement with Chevron Richmond connected to the upcoming $1 billion modernization of the Richmond Refinery. It offers all high school students living in Richmond and North Richmond up to $1,500 each year, or $6,000 for four years, to attend a community college or four-year college or university.
The Richmond Promise involves far more than simply writing out checks to students. Stewart has been given a daunting deadline of March 17 to ensure all eligible high school seniors in Richmond have filled out both their Richmond Promise applications and also their federal financial aid forms.
Once that date passes, Stewart will continue on with the even less simple task of creating a college scholarship program that is sustainable and instills a college-going culture in Richmond that will ultimately lead to tangible improvements in the city.
Seem improbable? Then you haven’t visited Kalamazoo, where Stewart’s younger sister benefited from the Promise program. THe Kalamazoo Promise was recently described by a trustee as a “life-changing, life-altering experience” for the Michigan city. The scholarships have not only provided students with brighter futures, but have fundamentally improved the community, Stewart said.
Like the Kalamazoo Promise, Stewart said Richmond’s program stands to succeed because it is supported by strong community stakeholders.
“We have all of the elements here in Richmond,” Stewart said. “We have best practices, dedicated community organizations, a school system that is prioritizing college and career readiness, and a city that is fully backing us.”
But the program’s success, similar to Kalamazoo’s, won’t happen overnight. Stewart’s plans include a comprehensive college and career resource system serving Richmond students, where they can be guided through the complex college application process, ensuring they’ve fulfilled all financial aid and acceptance requirements. That involves partnering with local universities, colleges, businesses, nonprofits and city officials with the shared goal that every Richmond Promise participant is not only signed up, but prepared, for college.
Once the Richmond Promise proves to be an established, credible program, it will be in a strong position to attract more funding to continue the program beyond the $35 million investment.
But first, Stewart is in a race against time. With roughly 1,000 high school seniors potentially eligible for scholarships, about 300 have filled out their Richmond Promise application, but just over 100 have submitted completed versions of the more complex FASFA and Dream Act applications.
Stewart described the federal forms as students’ “largest barrier to entry” for the scholarships, but believes they are important to ensure students maximize their college aid. That’s why it will be important to establish one-on-one support for students, Stewart added.
“It’s about aligning the existing systems and resources so every student can know about and access them easily,” Stewart.
For students who haven’t signed up yet, there is still time left and people are available to help. In fact, two more workshops will be held on Saturday, as well as on the deadline date of Thursday, March 17. See the flyer below for details.
The photo used in this story is credited to and courtesy of Don Gosney and Radio Free Richmond.