President Roosevelt Honored as the Founder of Pittsburgh Scholarship Program

January 22, 2020 | By Eve Tolpa

St. John’s President Mark Roosevelt served as Pittsburgh’s superintendent of public schools from 2005 to 2010.

St. John’s College President Mark Roosevelt’s work as a visionary educational leader was recently celebrated in Pittsburgh at A Night of Promise, a gala for The Pittsburgh Promise Scholarship Program.

In 2008, while serving as superintendent of Pittsburgh Public Schools, Roosevelt founded The Pittsburgh Promise, a program offering local high school students the financial and moral support to attend any accredited college, university, trade, or technical school in Pennsylvania.

The Promise is now one of the largest scholarship programs in the country. Since its inception, 9,335 Pittsburgh students have received more than $140 million in scholarships.

Student support takes the form of a stipend of up to $5,000 a year in what is known as last-dollar funding, which covers eligible expenses after monies from all other grants and scholarships have been deducted.

Many students from cities such as Pittsburgh do not believe that higher education is a possibility for them. The slogan for The Promise is “Dream Big and Work Hard:” Roosevelt believed that students would be highly motivated to know that, if they did their part, they would have the financial support necessary to pursue higher education. According to Pittsburgh Promise Executive Director Saleem Ghubril, The Promise is indeed inspiring students to raise their sights. “High school graduation—as well as college-going, persistence, and completion rates—[has] increased materially. The gap between the performance of black and white kids has been cut in half.”

Pittsburgh Promise alum Michael Warren served as master of ceremony for the gala, which was highlighted by a musical performance from Leslie Odom Jr., a member of the original Broadway cast of Hamilton.

Warren is one of those kids who helped close the performance gap. His Pittsburgh Promise scholarship allowed him to earn a BA in music education from Duquesne University in 2017. He went on to complete the University’s master of education program in one year and is currently pursuing its doctoral degree in educational leadership.

“As a foster kid, a homeless kid, a struggling black kid at a predominantly white institution, the burden of college is already heavy,” Warren says of his experience. “I’m glad that, even with the odds stacked against me, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ promise to me was fulfilled, and I’m glad to fulfill my promise by giving back to the city that raised me, challenged me.”

Warren sees himself as one of many program beneficiaries whose commitment to the area has been strengthened by The Promise.

“The number of Promise alumni who have chosen to stay in Pittsburgh and work in the many different sectors of the workforce is incredible,” he says. “Some [are] working in the medical field, the educational field, the nonprofit sector, the religious sector. It’s amazing, and it is truly the point [of] The Promise: Invest in students so they stay in Pittsburgh after graduation and invest back in their city.”

When Roosevelt announced his intention to start the program, he had no financial support—just an ambitious vision. The Pittsburgh Teacher’s Union provided a morale-boosting starting gift of $10,000, and shortly thereafter Roosevelt secured the big donation necessary to ensure The Promise would become a reality: a $100 million challenge grant from the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“The Pittsburgh Promise is a big idea with a high price tag that came about because visionaries with big hearts, unyielding determination, and remarkable generosity came together at the right time and did what many thought was impossible,” says Ghubril. “Mark Roosevelt was chief among them.”

“The Pittsburgh Promise was his big idea, and its purpose was not only to open doors for urban youth to pursue, fund, and excel in higher education, but also to apply pressure on educators and leaders to prepare students to be able to make the most of The Promise.”

Making higher education accessible to all has been an enduring focus of Roosevelt’s career. Since becoming the St. John’s College Santa Fe campus president in 2016, he’s already left his mark on St. John’s by co-creating, alongside the Board of Visitors and Governors and Annapolis President Pano Kanelos, the Freeing Minds capital campaign vision, which places philanthropy at the center of the college’s financial model and lowers tuition, thereby reducing one significant barrier to a liberal arts education.

Founding The Pittsburgh Promise was far from Roosevelt’s only achievement during his tenure as Pittsburgh’s superintendent of public schools from 2005 to 2010.

Under his leadership, the district met federal school improvement standards for the first time. He also created a historic partnership with the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers that resulted in a $40 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for empowering effective teachers.

His impact on the city was personal as well as professional. Warren recalls a brief interaction he and Roosevelt shared during that time.

“He’s a person who would give the shirt off his back, literally,” Warren says. “When I met him at Heinz Field in 2007, I noticed his white-and-neon-green ‘9th Grade Nation’ T-shirt! I loved it and insisted that I wanted one. After I performed the [national] anthem and before leaving, Mr. Roosevelt gave me his shirt. Whether or not it was the shirt he was wearing or an extra shirt laying around, I was truly grateful.”

At the gala, Roosevelt thanked the many people who have come together to make The Promise work. He said that “amidst all the negativity in the country today, sometimes the better America we all love puts aside the nonsense and stands up for what we know to be true—that people who lack dollars but who do not lack the will to overcome the odds, who work hard and play by the rules, deserve a helping hand and not the back of our hand. The Promise is a dream and a big idea that can transform lives and help keep hope alive. When good people everywhere wonder whether they can keep on with the struggle, The Promise should be a sign of what, working together, we can still accomplish.”