‘Hope and education’

(From left) Pikes Peak Community College President Lance Bolton, Harrison School District 2 Co-Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel, Gov. Jared Polis and State Rep. Tony Exum, listen as Harrison High School students talk about the impact the Dakota Promise Scholarship could have on their futures. [Express photos/Regan Foster]

Polis calls Dakota Promise a model for Colorado

A first-in-the-state partnership between Harrison School District 2, Pikes Peak Community College and a pair of private foundations sets a precedent that other Colorado districts could follow to close the opportunity gap.

That was the verdict from Gov. Jared Polis Tuesday, following a morning tour of Harrison High School and briefing on the groundbreaking Dakota Promise Scholarship. The program — backed by the Colorado Springs-based Dakota Foundation and local education-advocacy organization the Legacy Institute — provides a two-year, full-ride scholarship to all qualifying Harrison seniors who apply for and are accepted by the community college, starting with the class of 2020.

The scholarship applies to both associates degrees and trade certificates, and includes with it a college-appointed success coach to help them navigate the sometimes-rough waters of higher education.

It can also be a game-changer for students who are on the fence about whether they can afford the time and finances necessary to invest in a college education, a slew of dignitaries and future collegians agreed.

“Guess what, you can do it,” Polis said. “It just closes that last gap.

“We can bring hope and education to them.”

As part of the tour, his first visit to Harrison High, the governor visited an American government classroom and provided an insider’s view on partisan coalitions — the topic of the day. He met with students learning about early childhood education and learned a bit about ball bearings, courtesy of the automotive technology class. And he heard some of the first would-be Dakota Promise scholars.

“We thought we had the right vision, but to have students say … ‘without this I wouldn’t have gone to college.’ It’s why we do what we do.” — Pikes Peak Community College President Lance Bolton


Polis works with American government students during a tour of Harrison High School Dec. 3.

New beginnings

Polis — flanked by State Rep. Tony Exum, D-2 Co-Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel and PPCC President Lance Bolton — met with seven members of the class of 2020 to get first-person accounts of the scholarship’s potential impact. The youths shared deeply personal stories about traumatic losses of loved ones; about having parents deported; about being raised in large, fiscally insecure families; about repetitive bouts of childhood illness.

And they all spoke about how the promise of college could shape their future.

Jarrett Morris, 18, was resigned to getting his commercial driver’s license and joining his father as a truck driver after his spring graduation. Thanks to the promise, he will instead matriculate next fall into the college’s theater program.

“You have a chance,” the Harrison senior said. “Give a student a chance to have free education, and it gives you the chance to change a life.”

Karla Almaraz was already planning to enroll in PPCC’s best-in-the-state nursing program, but thanks to the scholarship she will have half of her four-year degree paid for in full.

“It blew my mind that they would pay for two years,” she said.

The 17-year-old plans to go into pediatrics. As a young child, Almaraz underwent repeated hospitalizations for a birth condition that she said was never officially diagnosed.

“I was inspired by one special nurse who always had the biggest smile on her face,” she told the assembled dignitaries. “For a 2-year-old walking into the hospital, that makes a difference.”

Alana Boone, 17, is one of 14 children, but only the second in her large family to attend college. She dreams of attending the University of Hawaii to study journalism and atmospheric science, on her way to becoming a meteorologist. The Dakota Promise will help her on her way, she said.

It could also help her four younger sisters —all D-2 students — pursue their college dreams.

Tony Exum

“It could really help out my family,” Boone said. “To have this scholarship is really going to help my whole family to relax.”

“It’s a great opportunity for not only higher education but for the state. Someone cares for students who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to go [to college].” — State Rep. Tony Exum

‘What we do’

PPCC’s Bolton glowed as he listened to these and other testimonials. He led the charge on the partnership, and after protracted discussions about the logistics of the scholarship, Tuesday was his first chance to hear from the students most affected.

“It’s just so gratifying and affirming,” he said. “We thought we had the right vision, but to have students say … ‘without this I wouldn’t have gone to college.’ It’s why we do what we do.”

Rep. Exum, whose 17th House District includes Harrison High School, understands that concern. As a high school student, he said, his family couldn’t afford the many costs associated with higher education. So he cashed on scholarships and took out loans to cover the rest.

Exum called the Dakota Promise “a great investment for these students.”

“It’s a great opportunity for not only higher education but for the state,” he said. “Someone cares for students who may not otherwise have had the opportunity to go” to college.

And for Polis, who has made education — specifically free universal kindergarten — a cornerstone of his administration, equal access for all students is critical. He praised the high school for its active AVID program, which focuses on college readiness, and for its work to curb drop out rates.

He added that other districts in the state could look to the public-private partnership between D-2, the college and the institutes as a model for making education accessible.

“This makes college more realistic for first-generation college-goers,” Polis said. “The Dakota Promise model is very exciting.”

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