Making Promises the City Can Keep

Jul 26, 2013

Ninth grade students practice their geometry skills at the Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy.
Credit Gates Foundation / flickr

The Pittsburgh Promise has been providing scholarships to Pittsburgh public school students since 2008. They've pledged to promote the development of neighborhoods, city school reform, and give city students access and opportunities to attend a higher education institution.

Five years since its inception, the first batch of Promise recipients are graduating from their respective colleges and universities, and many critics are argue that the program has not been effective. Saleem Ghubril, Executive Director of the Pittsburgh Promise maintains that the scholarship program is helping hundreds of students succeed after high school, while Jake Haulk, President of the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, asserts that little has been done to improve the quality of the public schools. He says students are not receiving a sufficient education upon high school graduation.

“If you really want to improve the outlook for these students, rather than dangling scholarships in front of them…give them money to go to a school where they’re going to get a good education that will prepare them for college,” said Haulk, who added that he supports instituting private vouchers for students that want to leave the public school system for a private school.  He points to the low Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores of students in the Pittsburgh public schools. He claims that when students in the district graduate high school, only 7% of them can perform at sufficient mathematics levels, yet 17% of these same students are eligible for the Pittsburgh Promise scholarship.

“You can’t send a kid to college and expect them to do well if they can’t even do high school level work,” he claims.

Ghubril addressed Haulk’s criticism by referencing a RAND education report highlighting that, while the program as a whole is still too new to assess, there are clear numbers illustrating the potential for over 50% of the students in the district to receive the Promise scholarship.  These numbers are expected to rise more in the coming years as public school enrollment begins to level off in the city and district.  Ghubril indicates that the money goes to the right kids—the poorest, neediest and the ones with the most potential.

The recipients, he notes, “truly represent the beautiful diversity of our city’s student population.” In the five years since the Promise’s inception, the district has seen stabilization of enrollment and a 9% increase in Kindergarten enrollment.

Haulk disputes these claims, saying that students are not motivated to perform at their highest capacity and isolates those students that want to be challenged.

“We have to do something for these kids stuck in the failing schools now and not wait for them to go to college.”

This, however, was met by criticism from Ghubril who insists that the Promise offers incentives that  motivate students to perform well.  These scholarships often determine whether or not a student will be able to afford college tuition.

The program has been said to need about six years to be assed, as that is now the projected time for completion of a four-year degree. The Pittsburgh Promise will continue to be studied and measured for effectiveness.