New road to success

Harrison SD 2, PPCC and foundations team on full-ride scholarship program

Sierra High School graduates prepare to toss their mortar boards during the school’s graduation ceremony. Starting with the class of 2020, all qualifying Harrison School District 2 graduates may receive a two-year, full-ride scholarship to Pikes Peak Community College. [Courtesy Photos/Angela Vance/Harrison School District 2]

Harrison School District 2 (D-2) seniors are receiving an academic leg up, starting with the class of 2020.

The district and Pikes Peak Community College announced Wednesday a partnership that will offer a full-ride, two-year scholarship to all qualifying D-2 graduates. Dubbed the Dakota Promise Scholarship, the program will cover all of the students’ costs, including tuition, books, fees, transportation and food, said Wendy Birhanzel, D-2 dual superintendent and an expert in curriculum and instruction. Students will also be paired with a success coach to help them navigate the college for the duration of the scholarship. 

The project is backed by the Dakota Foundation and the Legacy Institute. The institute was a driving force behind the district’s successful $180 million bond initiative approved last November.

“We’re so excited. It’s amazing!” an ebullient Birhanzel said of the scholarship. “We say college is for everyone, but then some kids can’t go because of costs or other factors. 

“We really think this helps change the earning potential for our [families] in the Southeast.” 

To qualify, students must graduate from a district high school or the Career Readiness Academy, must apply to the college, must apply for the grant and must have at least a 2.5 grade point average during their junior and senior years, Birhanzel said. The program launches with the class of 2020. 

“If we have 200 [students] that are able to qualify, 200 will be able to access” the college, she said. 

Between Sierra and Harrison high schools and the academy, about 400 D-2 students earn their diplomas each year, Birhanzel said. And while the exact value of the partnership was not immediately known, according to the college’s net price calculator, a 19-year-old who is enrolled full-time, who receives no fiscal aid and who is living at home can expect to spend about $10,576 per academic year. 

And that can prove prohibitive in a district where some parents have to choose between putting food on the table or buying fuel in the car. 

“Many times we have kids who will apply to Pikes Peak but they won’t end up enrolling or doing the financial aid because they think finances aren’t an option,” Birhanzel said. 

The program applies to associate degree programs as well as trade certifications. 

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Finding the path

The partnership arose from the initiative of PPCC President Lance Bolton, Birhanzel said. The district and college already partnered on a concurrent degree initiative, which allows D-2 students to pursue their associate degree while also completing their high school education, but Bolton saw a chance to cast a wider net for Southeast students. About 25 youths each year graduate with a concurrent degree, Birhanzel said. 

“He saw we needed to do something different and he saw all the kids who needed access to college,” she said of Bolton. “He saw this as an increased partnership: How do we put our heads together and focus on kids and the next steps?” 

So Bolton recruited private donors who could help foot the academic bill, tapping the Dakota Foundation and Legacy Institute to launch the Dakota Promise Scholarship. 

“Those conversations at the dinner table when a parent tells their child, ‘You’re not going to college. We can’t afford it,’ … Those conversations are over,” Bolton said in a statement. 

The pilot scholarship was developed with the financial support of the Dakota Foundation, which will be funding it for three years, according to a press release. Additional funding as been provided by the Legacy Institute, and D-2 is working to ensure the program will be sustainable in its fourth year. 

The aim is to double the number of students attending college within one year of high school graduation and get 80 percent of those students to complete a certificate or degree, or to transfer to a four-year college or university. 

Wendy Birhanzel

“Education offers the most effective pathway for upward mobility in our society,” Bart Holaday, founder and chairman of the Dakota Foundation said in the statement. “We at the Dakota Foundation, in partnership with PPCC and the Legacy Institute, are delighted to be able to create higher-education opportunities for District 2 high school graduates.” 

Our commitment now is preschool through grade 14. We offer all the way through college. It’s huge!” – Wendy Birhanzel, Harrison School District 2 co-superintendent

A national concern

The 2016 presidential election thrust college affordability — and the staggering debts that can pile up in the name of education — into the national spotlight. The conversation has only ratcheted up in recent weeks thanks to the Democratic presidential debates. While candidates differed on the best approach, they agreed that student debt is a major problem facing the nation.

While a first of its kind in Colorado, the partnership is not unprecedented. A Washington, D.C.-based organization called the College Promise Campaign  studies both the nature and the efficacy of these types of programs that are already in place. 

In 2014, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam rallied a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers, elected officials and leaders of the business and nonprofit sectors to launch Tennessee Promise. That first-of-its kind program earned national renown for covering in-state tuition and fees for recent high school grads to attend a community college or technical school. 

In Kalamazoo, Michigan, a similar program covers tuition and fees for Kalamazoo High School students to attend any college — public or private — in the state. 

And in El Dorado, Arkansas, the Murphy Oil Corporation covers tuition and fees for all local graduates who have attended El Dorado High School since ninth grade. The students may attend any accredited college or university in the United States. The numbers are clear, according to College Promise Campaign: Today in El Dorado, 84 percent of high school graduates attend college, compared to 50 percent statewide. 


A Harrison High School graduate reacts during convocation ceremonies.

Lasting legacy

For Birhanzel, the Dakota Promise Scholarship is more than just a pilot program, it’s a long-term commitment to both the students and the community that is raising them. 

In a community where generations of families may have not been able to attend college, the trickle-up impact of both extended academic achievement and the higher salaries that degree can demand can be dramatic. 

 “Our commitment now is preschool through grade 14,” Birhanzel said. “We offer all the way through college. It’s huge!

“This is us committing to our kids after they’ve left us,” she continued. “Dr. Bolton has really been the driving force, so we thank him. … We couldn’t do it as a school district, he couldn’t do it as a community college. So this is a perfect partnership of a unified vision.”

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