Parents and students packed the auditorium at Benito Juarez Community Academy High school Tuesday morning. The parents thought they were coming to an assembly about activities for seniors, such as graduation requirements. But they quickly noticed something else was afoot. TV cameras lined the back wall. Local radio deejays opened the assembly by telling students to take out their phones because history is about to be made.
Juarez principal Juan Carlos Ocon addressed the crowd and talked about how much the pandemic interrupted the lives of the seniors. He said seniors are wondering if prom or graduation was even going to happen this year. “Today, we are bringing you some good news,” he said.
Ocon told the students that the prom wouldn’t be held in the school cafeteria or gym. “Prom is going to be in the Palmer House for the first time in two years,” he said. And graduation is not going to be in the parking lot or the soccer field but at the Arie Crown Theater, Ocon added. Graduation would also be free for the students and each of them will get 15 tickets for family and friends to attend.
But the surprises didn’t end there.
Philanthropist Pete Kadens provided the next piece of good news. He told the students that each of them would get a full scholarship to college.
Kimberly Lopez immediately started crying. She is one of the top of her class and wants to be a mechanical engineer, but she has five brothers and sisters at home.
Her mother, a laborer, had told her she would work extra hard to put her through college, Lopez said.
“But now the burden has been lifted,” Lopez said. “Now, I think I can do this.”
Benjamin Arroyo said he is excited about offering his mom a chance to go to college, too. He said she came to the U.S. from Mexico to give him a better life. “Now she gets a chance to experience this,” he said.
Hope Chicago is providing all 1,671 students at Juarez with a full scholarship to one of 20 Illinois colleges or training programs of their choosing.
And in an unusual twist, one of their parents also will get the opportunity to go to college or a vocational training program for free.
“So you can lift up the whole family and lift up the whole community,” said former CPS CEO Janice Jackson, who stepped down from that post to run Hope Chicago. The idea is to tackle intergenerational poverty by giving both students and parents a way to get better jobs.
The organization was started with $20 million from Kadens and fellow philanthropist Ted Koenig. Jackson is working on raising $1 billion over 10 years so that eventually some 24,000 students and 6,000 parents can get scholarships.
Juarez High School in Pilsen was the first of five high schools where freshmen through seniors and their parents are getting the news this week. Hope Chicago will reveal the names of the other schools at yet-to-be-announced assemblies.
“This is life changing, this is going to transform the life of my families, my students, this is going to mean the whole world to them,” said Ocon.
Jackson said the scholarship program seeks to solve one of the problems she couldn’t fix as CEO of CPS. Under her leadership, more students graduated high school, more students went to college, but still less than half of those students completed their studies with a college degree.
Jackson said time and again students would say they returned home because they couldn’t afford to stay. Even when students had tuition paid for, other costs proved to be major obstacles.
And while almost all of the students at these high schools are considered low-income and therefore likely eligible for some federal and state financial aid, Jackson said this scholarship will “close the gap” between financial aid and the full cost of attending college, including room and board and fees.
“That’s what makes this such a unique program and such a generous program, because we know that sometimes those fees, or emergencies that pop up are the reasons why many of our kids come back home from school,” she said.
At Juarez, about 81% of students graduate from high school, 55% of those who graduate immediately enroll in college, but only 44% of those who go to college get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, according to the To&Through Project at the University of Chicago.
In addition, Ocon said some of his students are undocumented and therefore don’t qualify for financial aid. He said when they realize this, he can see the hope drain out of them. He said students often have to spend an extraordinary amount of time writing essays and applying for scholarships just to piece together tuition.
Hope Chicago will take away that burden, he said.
“It leaves me speechless in so many ways,” Ocon said. “I think that when our undocumented students realize the enormity of this news that they will be so excited. And once they realize that their dream of going to college can be fulfilled, because that obstacle, that barrier isn’t present, the sky’s the limit for those students.”
Jackson said the schools that were chosen are places where the percentages of students enrolling in college and earning a degree are low. Those high schools will be given success coaches to support students and the partner colleges have agreed to have resources on campus for the students with Hope scholarships.
Hope Chicago is not yet revealing the 20 partner colleges and programs, but they include the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Illinois State University according to the program. Students who choose not to attend one of the partner colleges and programs will get a yearly stipend of $1,000 for extraneous expenses.
Jackson said she is working on bringing on more partner schools, focusing first on historically Black colleges and universities.
Pete Kadens of the Kadens Family Foundation started a similar program in Toledo, Ohio. Hope Toledo provided full college scholarships to the graduating class of 2020 at one high school. That class’s college-going rate was 54% compared to 34% for the previous year’s graduating class. In addition, among those students graduating in 2020, about 25% of their parents also enrolled in college.