Finishing Big More Important Than Starting Big

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Here at Cities of Promise not a week goes by without an inquiry a week from somewhere new. Someone reaching out to better understand what it takes to start a Promise program. And the first concern is always, how can we pay for it?

While it is great to have a fabulously wealthy individual, organization or company bestow a huge amount of seed money for a Promise program, it is hardly a requirement.

It is possible to gather a relatively small amount and partner with a college and company to leverage more benefit. And then build a structure for students to take advantage of the funds available through PELL grants and local scholarships to make college affordable. If a pilot program can be created, it could be the first step toward bigger donors, bigger dollars and bigger impact.

That’s the initial vision of the folks in Richmond, Va., who attended PromiseNet 2014 in New Haven, Conn. It will start with Future Centers in city schools to serve as an “on-ramp” for a larger goal of a Promise program. Starting with forms and financial literacy, RVA Future hopes to make tuition scholarships to community college available in 2017.

“We need to say to students and families: ‘This path is real. It’s available. And it’s available for you. Not for someone else. For you.’ They have to believe that. Once they believe that, it creates a demand for improvement at all levels,” said Dr. Thad Williamson, director of the city’s Office of Community Wealth Building.

Tina Griego of Richmond’s Style Weekly, an alternative news source, hit the nail on its economic head when she wrote, “[RVA Future] will depend upon Richmond’s white economic power structure — its donor class — to build the scholarship fund, acting upon what it knows to be true: Richmond cannot continue to hemorrhage middle-class families as soon as the middle-school years hit and expect to reach to its full economic potential.”

If cities fail to adapt to changing demographics, they could simply be doomed. The Greensboro, N.C., community is recognizing that and isn’t waiting to start small. Officials have raised $9 million already this year to gain the support and resources of Say Yes To Education, which has Promise initiatives in Syracuse and Buffalo.

Back in Richmond — where six Fortune 500 companies are headquartered — school board member Shonda Harris-Muhammed, who has been helping to shape city’s educational future for about a year, said, “We need partners and, I’m going to be candid, we need to decide as a community whether we are going to support public education in this city or not. Are we going to put our money where our mouths are? This is a bridge we are building between the city and the school district.”

After all, their futures rely on one another.

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