Late this past winter, 22-year-old Jahmiah Guillory graduated from Penn State University where he majored in petroleum and natural gas engineering. But his road to becoming a college graduate was not an easy one.

Raised in Pittsburgh’s Northview Heights public housing community, he was headed in an entirely different direction when he began his senior year at Pittsburgh Oliver High School. He had a 1.7 GPA and worked two jobs to help support his family. Then he heard Saleem Ghubril, executive director of a new program called the Pittsburgh Promise, talk about how qualifying students could be eligible for up to $20,000 in college scholarships.

Having once been a good student, Guillory was inspired by this opportunity. With new hope and support from teachers and his mom, Guillory worked hard and qualified for the scholarship by earning a 4.0 GPA his senior year.

“I spoke with my counselors and teachers. ‘You guys all believe in me. Now it’s time to believe in myself.’ I knew it was possible,” he told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Pittsburgh Promise, which was highlighted in a 2013 special issue of h magazine (published by the Heinz Endowments) focused on urban public education, is one of many innovative new programs in Pittsburgh and across the country created to address the problems associated with struggling public education systems.

Under the program, graduates of city public high schools and certain charter schools who meet eligibility requirements are awarded up to $40,000 to attend college. Since 2009, 3,285 graduates have received scholarships funded by private donors and foundations.

“We now have evidence through our PPS alumni who have completed their post-secondary education and are now a part of our region’s workforce that The Promise is a key motivator and a meaningful financial factor for those who might not otherwise be able to pursue their dreams,” said School Superintendent Dr. Linda Lane in a 2012 report.

According to a 2013 report published by The Pitttsburgh Foundation,  84 percent of high school graduates receiving scholarships during the  previous five years had maintained a grade point average above the minimum requirement of a 2.5 GPA. More than half, 52 percent, achieved a GPA of 3.0 or higher.  The annual dropout rate has also declined since the program began. With nearly 40 million dollars in scholarships awarded, many students have already reaped the benefits.

These successes reflect a long history in Pittsburgh of urban school reform. Pittsburgh was an early innovator in education, but was stymied by a common problem in translating early successes to a broader scale.

In the 1980s, as Carmen Lee, a long-time education reporter wrote in “A Blueprint for Reform” in h magazine’s education issue, then-Superintendent Richard Wallace was credited with ushering in “golden years of new approaches to teaching, curriculum, and accountability that gained support from the teachers’ union and improved students’ learning.” But then Wallace retired, and the reform movement stalled (a common setback in going to scale: too much hinges on a charismatic leader).

Pittsburgh has rallied of late, and is heeding the advice of Barnett Berry, president and CEO of the Center for Teaching Quality, a research-based advocacy organization in North Carolina. “Despite some of the rhetoric you might hear,” Barry told Lee, “most reformers don’t want education to look that different from when they were in school.”

Instead, he argues, true transformation requires “using technology, workplace opportunities, and cultural assets such as museums and public libraries to offer educational experiences at varied times of the day, seven days a week.”

The city, its philanthropies, and cultural organizations were thinking along the same lines. Together they have created a network of learning opportunities across the city, and, importantly, they have connected those many learning opportunities so kids can readily see how what they learn in one place is tied to what they learn in another place. This network gives kids the opportunity to extend what they learn in school, as well as bring back to class ideas and new talents they have learned outside of school.

Pittsburgh has also renewed it commitment to closing the education gap between lower- and higher-income families. Pittsburgh’s Equity Plan will be tested at two high schools: Perry High School on the city’s North Side, and Westinghouse 6-12 in Homewood. Strategies include improving the quality of teaching, engaging parents and communities, offering a more culturally relevant curriculum, and offering a wider variety of subjects. If successful, they hope to expand the program districtwide.

The Heinz Endowments launched the Heinz Fellows Program in 2011, which enlists black men who are successful college graduates to work with African American male teens in schools and communities as mentors and role-models.

In return, the fellows are provided with a salary, benefits and a stipend to attend a master’s program in an education-related field at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The first class of nine fellows graduated in 2013. Each mentored 25 to 30 students at Westinghouse High School.

“We worked carefully to ensure that these young men would not be add-ons to the system but part of the regular daily routine,” said Endowments President Robert Vagt. “This is the first time that people who do not report through the system have been allowed to work in classrooms and become stakeholders in what happens each day.”

One of the main ways these fellows connect with students is through their own personal stories of resilience.

“I have very similar backgrounds to them,” said fellow Travis Robinson, a mentor at Westinghouse who is profiled in h magazine. “I can relate to them.”

Only time will tell whether these new programs will turn public schools around. But one thing is certain for now—they are opening up exciting new opportunities and horizons.

“The big thing to understand is children from impoverished communities can be successful, too,” Guillory said.

Photo/ Penn State