"A lot of us have been eagerly awaiting this day," Mayor Luke Ravenstahl said from a podium in his Downtown conference room, "the day when we can congratulate the first graduating Pittsburgh Promise scholars."
The Pittsburgh Promise offers up to $40,000 to students who attend Pittsburgh Public Schools, and meet minimum grade requirements, to pursue higher education in state. Since the program began in 2007, about 200 participating students have graduated with 2-year degrees and other certificates, but this year marks a milestone.
"Over the last 4 years we have been building the infrastructure of the Promise and here we are, approaching the end of year four, and we will be able to celebrate for the first time the completion of a 4-year degree by close to 400 of our students," said Pittsburgh Promise executive director Saleem Ghubril.
Sha-phawn Williams, age 20, was one such recent graduate. She said before she found out about the Pittsburgh Promise, college was never in her plans. "I felt as though I didn't have the academics and I didn't have the money," said Williams, who was one of a small group of students who attended the mayor's celebration ceremony.
A former Schenley High School student, Williams was in Spanish class when a few of her friends told her about the program. "As soon as I heard that I went to my counselor's office and that's when I started to apply to schools. … Pittsburgh promising to invest in my future made me realize I had to invest in myself," she said.
Williams has since graduated magna cum laude from Lincoln University with a degree in biology and is now applying for graduate programs in pharmacy.
One of the other goals of the Pittsburgh Promise was to revitalize public school enrollment. The program, Ravenstahl hoped, would encourage city families to stay and new families to move into the district.
"RAND recently completed a study, and they discovered that over 450 new families enrolled their middle school children in public schools since the inception of the Promise. A great number, one that we should be very proud of," said Ravenstahl, who co-founded the program. Population and enrollment numbers are still declining, he said, but at a slower rate every year.