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Donors raise $33 million for scholarships in Grand Rapids

May 27, 2015

Roberto Galarza hopes to earn free college through the Challenge Scholars program.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

A program that’ll offer students in Grand Rapids free college is getting a big boost. A group of 400 donors has raised more than $33 million in one year.

Sixth-graders who commit to come to school regularly and get good grades can go to college for free. The scholarships target middle schoolers who funnel into a low-performing Grand Rapids high school.

The money has helped nearly 300 kids so far, kids like 14-year-old Roberto Galarza, a seventh-grader at Harrison Park Elementary. Neither of his parents went to college. But he says they’re excited he has the chance to go for free.

“Since I entered Challenge Scholars, it inspired me to get better grades, and want to go to college and achieve something in life,” Galarza said.

Galarza is interested in marine biology and chemical engineering.

Scholars like Garza have to keep at least a “C” average and may not miss more than 8 days in school. If they do, they're eligible to go get a two- or four-year degree from several Michigan colleges and universities.

Westwood Middle School Principal Art Garner says it's already changing his school’s culture. He says students who sign up don’t like to disappoint.

“Once they know who’s supporting them, they’re more than willing to do whatever’s necessary to stay on the honor roll, make sure that they’re in school, and this group of students are leaders in our building. So when there’s something wrong, they let us know,” Garner said.

At his school, leaders meet with scholars once a month. Garner says they go over test scores with students to show them how they stack up compared to others in their building.

Organizers hope to raise more money if the program is successful. The $33 million goal was phase one of the program.

“People want tangible results. So we want to be able to provide that so that we can raise the remaining amount of money that can permanently endow this,” said Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

Sieger says it’ll take about three years to show evidence the program works over a period of time. She says it’ll take another roughly $30 million to complete phase two.