Charter pupils get $100,000 scholarships to Widener U.

Posted: June 06, 2014

With one daughter headed to college and another to high school - and, she hopes, someday, college - Angela Dawson didn't know how she was going to pay all the tuition bills.

On Wednesday, she found out she wouldn't have to.

Widener University announced that it would award $100,000 scholarships to every eighth-grade student who graduates from Widener Partnership Charter School in Chester. Educational experts say such incentive programs are becoming more popular around the country.

Dawson's daughter Destiny Barnes, one of 37 students in the class, learned recently that she also was among 25 Widener students selected by a Catholic business leaders' group for full four-year scholarships to Catholic high schools.

"Wow, wow, wow," Dawson said when asked how she felt about the scholarship bonanza.

Destiny will attend Cardinal O'Hara High School in Springfield before, she hopes, getting an undergraduate degree at Widener, where tuition this year is $39,000.

Parents thought they hit the jackpot with the high school awards, but the $100,000 college scholarships for qualified students - $25,000 per year for four years - was an undreamed-of bonus.

"Very excited, very excited," said Breon Simms, father of Brea Simms, who also got a scholarship to O'Hara.

Widener University president James T. Harris III said he planned to tell students formally about the college awards on Thursday at graduation.

The university board of trustees had been discussing how to encourage students at the school, which Widener University founded in 2006, to attend college.

"We wanted to give them hope that they could get a college education," said Harris, adding that many students likely would qualify for even more financial aid. Widener plans to give future classes the same gift.

The cost to the college won't be known until officials know how many students take advantage of the offer, a spokesman said. The program will be funded through the university's endowment.

Widener already works with students to place them in high schools that will prepare them for college, Harris said. The students "are so talented. They will probably have many options for college," he said, and Widener wanted to make sure they knew the university was not out of reach.

Similar programs have been cropping up around the nation. Clark University in Massachusetts provides financial aid to graduates of its charter high school. And Pittsburgh Promise gives students who attend public schools from ninth grade on scholarships worth up to $40,000 when they graduate if their GPAs are at least 2.5 and they have good attendance records.

"The earlier the better," Jesse O'Connell, a spokesman for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said about awarding scholarships to eighth graders. "It kind of gets them thinking that college is possible and finances aren't a barrier."

Nancy Shaw, Widener Partnership's high school placement adviser, called the awards "a tremendous opportunity for our students, many of whom would have great difficulty with the finances for college."

The 450-student school is already highly sought after by parents, who enter their children into a lottery for the 35 to 50 seats per grade in kindergarten through eighth grade.

"This will make it all the more attractive when our parents and families see the level of support we're able to provide for our students," she said.

With two-thirds of students in the Chester Upland School District attending charters, the district has tried to woo some back to traditional schools with promises of better academics and less violence.

But they are finding it hard to compete with the more selective charter schools. Last week, the biggest in the district, Chester Community Charter School, held an appreciation ceremony for parents of high-achieving students and handed out gifts of electronics and a grand prize, a trip to Walt Disney World.

For the troubled district, which can't balance its budget, let alone hand out vacations and college scholarships to students in its traditional schools, the news about Widener was yet another setback.

"If there's a school, regardless of what kind of school it is, that's going to give a $100,000 college scholarship if you go through it, it's a no-brainer," said Bob Fayfich, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools. "Common sense says it's worth looking at very carefully."

Joe Watkins, state receiver for Chester Upland, said the scholarships were a tremendous incentive for students at Widener Partnership. But he said the district hoped to work with Widener to improve the traditional public schools as well.

Dawson, who manages an internal-medicine practice at Crozer-Chester Medical Center, said she considered selling her house and moving to another district so Destiny could go to an academically strong high school and eventually college. Worrying about her children's education and the sky-high costs "just brought me down every single day. It had me in a state of fear."

Now, she said, "I am so blessed and so thankful."


kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232

@kathyboccella

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