Jael Myrick: The Richmond Promise at its Best



Last week the Council considered some of the final recommendations of the Richmond Promise before the program goes into the hands of the newly formed 501(c)3 for rollout to the community. While it may make the community uncomfortable, some major decisions were delayed so that city staff could provide more specific numbers relating to the different options. For the community, we want to do this right. Despite much of the rhetoric on all sides, I remain optimistic that if we’re careful, the Council will be able to ensure that Richmond Promise can last into perpetuity.

Clear to the Council, and as the community is becoming more aware, if we are going to find a way to make the Richmond Promise last, there will be key trade-offs that the Council will need to consider and to which the non-profit will be accountable. All proposals that I have seen are clear in that if we were to take the recommendations of the ad hoc committee, and commit to a $4000 annual maximum award for each youth including charter and private school students, with parity for community colleges AND Universities, the money will run out in four years.  

One idea to save money that has been suggested is means testing.  Means testing is the idea that families who have an income of over a certain number would be ineligible for the program. I believe and research has shown this is a bad idea for several reasons.  Means testing would require a level of administrative work that is only helpful if it leads to significant savings. To determine whether there is value in that added administrative burden one only needs to ask themselves a simple question: How many rich people live in Richmond and send their children to WCCUSD Public Schools? My guess is not very many. If we include means testing, we may end up in a situation where there is increased cost to administer the program and only one or two students are impacted, leading to very small savings if any.  Plus, if there are families with resources who choose to send their kids to public WCCUSD schools, wouldn’t we want to encourage that?

With respect to charter schools, the majority Council opinion is to include them in the Richmond Promise. On October 27, there were six votes to include charter school youth, and none to exclude them. I voted to include charter school youth for two reasons, first because they are a part of the public school system and secondly because I’m confident that including charters will put us in a stronger position with donors, funders, and community stakeholders who can help the Promise as a whole, balancing out the increased perpetuity costs.

As for the question of the amount, I think everyone would agree that in the ideal world we would give each student as much money as possible. On this issue in particular, however, the numbers dictate that anything more than $2,500 per year per student puts the program in real risk (FOR NOW). In several cities including Denver, Promise programs have started out with more generous award amounts and had to reduce them later when the numbers didn’t add up. In our case, it would be wiser to begin with a more modest award that can be increased as additional funds become available. This is why the Council pursued a percentage award for the lifetime of the Promise. Being discussed now is simply the starting point.

Also, for some perspective, I would remind folks that when I first ran for Council in 2012, the program I proposed would have been $5000 per student for their entire college career. During that campaign it was suggested often that such a proposal was too ambitious and would never happen. At $2,500 per year ($10,000 total) what we would be giving students is twice that amount. I believe for the students most at risk this would be significant, particularly for those whose educational pathway is community college.

Which brings me to the next issue; I believe that shortchanging community college students in order to make these numbers work would be akin to balancing a budget on the backs of the most vulnerable in our community. When I’ve spoken before about the Richmond Promise being a game-changer, it was not in reference to youth who were already going to college and needed a little extra help. While that piece is important, the Richmond Promise, at its best, can provide youth who weren’t even seeing college as part of their future, as an opportunity to chart out a completely different life journey. Most of those youth will probably start that educational journey at a community college.

One of my motivations for establishing the Richmond Promise (which is what inspired me to run for Council back in 2012) was a friend I grew up with.  For the sake of anonymity we’ll call him Tim. Growing up Tim’s mother was very sick and his father was not around. It is unlikely that a kid like Tim would have ever had the privilege of attending a private or charter School.

I still remember pushing him to sign up for an auto-mechanic course at Contra Costa College after he graduated Kappa (that was the Continuation High School that used to be behind Kennedy). He went to CCC, filled out his financial aid form and signed up for the class.   Unfortunately, he soon found out that the Financial Aid would not be enough to cover the materials he needed for the course. That was the end of Tim’s College experience.

The moment I realized Tim was smarter than me came a few years later, around age 21. I was living in an apartment in San Leandro, Tim was dealing with the first of several bouts with homelessness, and so I let him stay on my couch for about a month. My roommate at the time didn’t know that Tim was unemployed. I would take him with me every morning when I left for school/work. He would look for a job while I tended to my responsibilities.  

One day on the way home my car at the time, a 1987 Chrysler Sundance, started shaking and smoking. It was about 11:00 PM and pitch black outside. I pulled over and popped the hood. Tim used a cheap cell phone light and within two minutes was able to tell me exactly what was wrong with my car, exactly what parts I needed and exactly how much it would cost to fix.  

Today, I am Vice-Mayor of one of the biggest cities in the East Bay. The last time I spoke with Tim, he was struggling to maintain housing, battling drug addiction, and had never held a job for more than one week. I fought to create the Richmond Promise because I believed that if it existed in 2003, Tim would be a mechanic today, hopefully with his own shop in our community, but at the very least his own profession.

If we choose to sacrifice funding for community college students in order to allow Private School graduates to participate, we would be eliminating the very aspect of the Richmond Promise that makes it a game-changer. For a Salesians graduate going to Cal, the Richmond Promise means slightly less student loan debt. But for kids like Tim, the Richmond Promise (even at $2,500 a year) could mean a completely different life trajectory and educational pathway.   

This is why I have consistently opposed GPA requirements and extracurricular requirements and this is why I believe community College students need to be funded equitably. Kids like Tim don’t have parents that show up to Council meetings and write letters to their elected officials. It is our responsibility as civic leaders to make sure kids like Tim aren’t left out of this program.

I will certainly lose votes for what I’m about to say, but most kids that graduate from a private school (even if they went on a Scholarship) will probably be successful. They may have to take out some loans or work through College, but in most cases they will have the family support, school counseling support, and have been afforded the solid foundations to ensure that they will not fall through the cracks the way Tim did.

We have to make trade-offs in the short term if we want the Richmond Promise to be a successful program that lasts for those currently in elementary school. I hope my colleagues will join me in prioritizing the kids who are the most at-risk. By limiting the maximum award to $2,500, at least in the early years, and being careful not to add hundreds of students outside the public school system and getting financial commitments from community stakeholders, I believe we can make these numbers work in perpetuity.  

I will be attending a conference about Promise Programs in Kalamazoo Michigan next week. Assuming I survive the freezing weather, I intend to bring back any information gleaned from the other cities nationally about how best to make our limited resources stretch. I still believe we are in a great position to build a successful program that will change education for the city of Richmond as we know it. 


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