How a Westside scholarship program is changing the way local students view life after high school

Post-secondary education has become increasingly expensive over the years. According to an article from CNBC by Abigail Hess, the cost of a college education has increased by more than 25% in the last decade. Challenge Scholars provides a way for families on Grand Rapids’ West Side to cover the costs of education after high school. The program, funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, partners with Grand Rapids Public Schools and other organizations like Kent School Services Network and WestSide Collaborative.

Challenge Scholars offers an early scholarship promise so students and their families know, beginning in at least 6th grade, that a scholarship for college and career training after high school may be available to them. Challenge Scholars is only available for students at Harrison Park, Westwood Middle School, and Union High School.

Recently, the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Authority Board of Directors voted to approve the Grand Rapids Promise Zone Development Plan. This plan also provides tuition-free education to Grand Rapids students. “We are exploring how our Challenge Scholars program and the Promise Zone might complement each other,” says Audra Hartges, PR and Marketing Specialist for the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. 

Union High School’s class of 2020 will be the first group of Challenge Scholars students to receive a tuition-free education. Challenge Scholars Director Cris Kutzli says the program has been working continuously to improve their goal of “affordable educational attainment.”

“We have been learning all along, always trying to be really intentional and thoughtful on what’s working and what’s correct. Even with this senior class, this is our first senior class in the Challenge Scholars program,” says Kutzli. “Part of our practice is to be really reflective about what we are doing and to always try to make improvements on how we can better achieve our goals.”

Union High School student Cody Garrison will be graduating this year, and will be eligible for the Challenge Scholars program for college. Programs like Challenge Scholars are changing the way students and their families view life after high school. Rhoda Williams, the mother of 13-year-old Tiffany Williams, believes Challenge Scholars has made her daughter’s post-secondary education a reality. “I believe she has a hopeful and positive attitude towards education because of the program,” says Williams. “Challenge Scholars is helpful and will give her more options. I think it prepares her for what is ahead.” 

Tiffany Williams joined the Challenge Scholars program in May of 2019 as a sixth grader at Westwood Middle School. Tiffany wants to pursue a career in writing to become an author. “I believe the program would help her pursue a degree in writing or even some other areas that she is interested in,” says Rhoda Williams.

To be a Challenge Scholar, students have to meet several requirements before they can receive a tuition-free education: maintain a 95% attendance rate, avoid behaviors that could lead to expulsion, and achieve a 2.0 GPA or higher. Students are responsible for meeting these requirements; however, their families play a huge role in their success.  

“The best way they can help is by ensuring their students have consistent and reliable transportation to make sure their attendance stays above 95%,” says Evan Roy, an English Language Arts teacher at Union High School. “Union has additional programs such as after-school tutoring and academic advisories to assist the students who do struggle.” 

Roy has noticed more and more students are planning on pursuing some kind of education after high school since Challenge Scholars was implemented. “I’ve definitely noticed an increase of interest in attending college since the Challenge Scholars program started. I think a lot of Union students are considering career paths and life goals that previously wouldn’t have seemed obtainable without the program,” says Roy.

Aaron Roussey, principal of Union High School.The principal of Union High School Aaron Roussey has been on staff at Union for 17 years and has noticed a huge change in his students’ perception of post-secondary education. “They have gone from thinking ‘man I hope I get into a school and get scholarships’ to ‘which school should I choose,’” says Roussey.

The Challenge Scholars program has provided a way for families to stop worrying about the cost barrier and start focusing on motivating their students to keep up their grades so they can be accepted to the school of their choosing. 

Kara Garrison, mother of 17-year-old Cody Garrison, believes this program has provided a new path for her son. “Without the program, we would still be considering higher education, but it would be a big obstacle, financially,” she says. “Challenge Scholars has definitely lifted a weight off of our family’s shoulders.”

Cody is a senior at Union High School and wants to pursue a career in psychology. He joined Challenge Scholars in the sixth grade and is on track to graduate with the class of 2020, the first group of students to receive tuition-free college.

Kara Garrison actively encourages and motivates her son to keep him on track with the program. “To help him meet the Challenge Scholar requirements, I make sure he goes to school every day, check his grades, and periodically check in with the Challenge Scholar advisors at his school to make sure everything is in order,” she says.

Since Challenge Scholars was first introduced, additional pathways have been created for students who started school at different schools or joined Union High School in different years. “A student who joins Harrison Park or Westwood Middle School can earn up to four years of college tuition. If a student joins at Union in 9th grade, they can earn up to two years tuition-free college at GRCC,” says Audra Hartges.

Kara Garrison and her son Cody at the last football game of the season.“We have families who have moved out of the district but still send their kids on a long bus ride to keep them at Union High and on track for the program,” says Aaron Roussey. 

Kutzli has seen parents of students involved in the program be so motivated by their kids, that they decide to go back to school.

“There was a mother whose son became a Challenge Scholar and she was so proud of her son that she decided to pursue her own education,” says Kutzli. 

This mother was able to receive her pharmacy tech certificate. “It helped her kids to see how hard they needed to work and what that sort of accomplishment looks like,” says Kutzli.

The Challenge Scholars program is making the dream of going to college a reality for students on Grand Rapids’ West Side and the program will continue to change the lives of students and their families for years to come.

Photography by Kristina Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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