'It is truly a life-changing offer for our kiddos. Having access to college is one of the ways we disrupt the cycle of poverty.'
All third graders at an Arizona school received a life-changing gift last month when a local nonprofit surprised the class with full-ride scholarships to college. According to a spokesman for the Roosevelt School District No. 66 in Phoenix, all 63 third grade students at Bernard Black Elementary School will receive the scholarships. The entire third grade class at the school was congregated with their parents for what they thought would be a standard assembly when Quintin Boyce, the Roosevelt School District superintendent, broke the incredible news. Speaking to The Washington Post, Boyce revealed that once the initial shock dissipated, nearly every parent broke down in tears of joy.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the house," he said of the assembly on April 25. "It was a really precious moment. In my 20 years in education, it was one of the most memorable—if not the most memorable—experiences I've had." As about 90% of the school district qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, the surprise announcement had a profound impact on parents, many of whom admitted they couldn't fathom saving enough money to send their kids to college. "I got very emotional," said Evelia Castaneda, whose son, Abisai, is a third grader. She and her husband, Asael Castaneda, said they were overwhelmed with relief and excitement. "It will be a big difference," shared Castaneda.
The students and parents have the Rosztoczy Foundation—a private family organization based in Avondale—to thank for the life-altering gift. Founded in 2005 by the late Ferenc E. Rosztoczy, a Hungarian-born chemist who built several successful businesses after moving to the United States in 1957, the nonprofit runs a College Promise program to help send students to college. In 2012, when the program was first introduced, the foundation offered to send 84 third graders at Michael Anderson School in Avondale to college.
Erika Valadez, one of the recipients of the scholarship that year, is now finishing up her freshman year at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix. The 19-year-old revealed that her family wouldn't have been able to fund her university studies without the generosity of the Rosztoczy Foundation. "I think I would have taken a few gap years to try to earn some money," she said. Now, "I won't graduate with over $100,000 in debt. It impacts not only you but everyone around you... Just knowing that I had the scholarship was so motivating; it made everything more real. It changed the course of my life."
Of the 84 third graders to receive the scholarships in 2012, 67 students graduated from the local high school district last year. So far, 34 are enrolled in college. Students have five years to use their eligibility. "When we felt like we had success as they were graduating last year, we decided we want to do more of this," said Ferenc Rosztoczy's son, Tom Rosztoczy, who now runs the foundation with his mother and brother. "We spent some time trying to see if it had made a difference, and we felt like it had." Explaining that the foundation's goal is to eventually award the scholarships to two elementary schools a year, Rosztoczy revealed that the offer will be extended to another group of third graders next month.
Rosztoczy said the College Promise program begins with elementary-aged children for a reason. "We wanted to start young enough so that the kids and the parents would change how they thought about education," he explained. To maintain the full scholarship—including tuition and room and board—students must graduate from the local public high school district, maintain a grade-point average of 2.0 or higher in college and earn at least 12 credits per semester. The scholarship covers about $120,000 per student, which is roughly the cost of what it would be to attend a state school for four years. If a student chooses to attend a more expensive program, the student would pay the difference.
When the foundation first approached Boyce with the scholarship idea three months ago, he "was dumbfounded," he said. "It is truly a life-changing offer for our kiddos. Having access to college is one of the ways we disrupt the cycle of poverty." The Rosztoczys let Boyce decide which school was best suited for the funding. "It was an impossible decision," he said, explaining that he based the selection on financial need and student population. "To have a guarantee that it is already there waiting, it makes it so much easier to really push and focus on being an amazing student. It's liberating."