Gov. Jared Polis talks with Harrison High School students.
By Regan Foster

A first-in-the-state partnership between Harrison School District 2, Pikes Peak Community College and a pair of private foundations sets a precedent for closing the opportunity gap that other Colorado districts could follow.

That was the verdict from Gov. Jared Polis, following a Dec. 3 tour of Harrison High School and a briefing on the Dakota Promise Scholarship. The program — backed by the Colorado Springs-based Dakota Foundation and local education-advocacy organization the Legacy Institute — provides a two-year, full-ride scholarship to all qualifying Harrison seniors who apply for and are accepted by the community college, starting with the class of 2020.

The scholarship applies to both associate degrees and trade certificates, and includes with it a college-appointed success coach to help them navigate the sometimes-rough waters of higher education.

It can also be a game-changer for students who are on the fence about whether they can afford the time and money to invest in a college education.

“Guess what, you can do it,” Polis said. “It just closes that last gap. We can bring hope and education to them.”

Polis — flanked by State Rep. Tony Exum, D-2 Co-Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel and PPCC President Lance Bolton — met with seven members of the class of 2020 to get first-person accounts of the scholarship’s potential impact. The students shared personal stories about traumatic losses of loved ones; about having parents deported; about being raised in large, fiscally insecure families; about repetitive bouts of childhood illness.

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And they all spoke about how the promise of college could shape their future.

Jarrett Morris, 18, planned on getting his commercial driver’s license and joining his father as a truck driver after his spring graduation. Due to the Promise, he will instead matriculate next fall into the college’s theater program.

“You have a chance,” Morris said. “Give a student a chance to have free education, and it gives you the chance to change a life.”

Karla Almaraz was already planning to enroll in PPCC’s best-in-the-state nursing program, but thanks to the scholarship she will have half of her four-year degree paid for in full.

“It blew my mind that they would pay for two years,” she said.

The 17-year-old plans to go into pediatrics. As a child, Almaraz underwent repeated hospitalizations for a birth condition that she said was never officially diagnosed.

“I was inspired by one special nurse who always had the biggest smile on her face,” she told the assembled dignitaries. “For a 2-year-old walking into the hospital, that makes a difference.”

Alana Boone, 17, is one of 14 children, but will be only the second in her large family to attend college. She dreams of attending the University of Hawaii to study journalism and atmospheric science, on her way to becoming a meteorologist. The Dakota Promise will help her on her way, she said.

It could also help her four younger sisters — all D-2 students — pursue their college dreams.

“It could really help out my family,” Boone said. “To have this scholarship is really going to help my whole family to relax.”

Bolton led the charge on the partnership, and after protracted discussions about the logistics of the scholarship, this visit was his first chance to hear from the students most affected.

“It’s just so gratifying and affirming,” he said. “We thought we had the right vision, but to have students say … ‘without this I wouldn’t have gone to college.’ It’s why we do what we do.”

And for Polis, who has made education — specifically free universal kindergarten — a cornerstone of his administration, equal access for all students is critical. He praised the high school for its active AVID program, which focuses on college readiness, and for its work to curb dropout rates.

He added that other districts in the state could look to the public-private partnership between D-2, the college and the nonprofits as a model for making education accessible.

“This makes college more realistic for first-generation college-goers,” Polis said. “The Dakota Promise model is very exciting.”