Promise Scholars: A Promise to Help All Students Get to College

In 2000, San Bernardino County was struggling with educational attainment levels. Only 74 percent of people 25 years and older had a high school diploma, compared with 77 percent statewide. When it came to college graduates, the disparity grew even more. Only 16 percent of the San Bernardino County residents held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 27 percent in California.School administrators at the time knew something needed to be done. After all, higher education attainment levels is linked to higher wages, an increased standard of living and a stronger economy.“The main issue that was recognized in the community was the changing nature of the workforce, and that we needed to prepare students for the 21st Century,” said Leslie Sorensen, Resource Development Administrator for the Ontario-Montclair School District. “We also knew that educational attainment levels for many of the parents in the area was low, and as a result students were having trouble navigating through college because their parents didn't have that experience themselves.”

The Birth of Promise Scholars

In search of a solution, the Promise Scholar’s program was born. Promise Scholars was based on a pilot program at three elementary schools, one middle and one high school which was created in 1998 in an effort to encourage students in Montclair to go to college. Students in the selected schools were automatically enrolled in the program beginning in fifth grade, and were promised upon completion of the program two free years of post-secondary education at Chaffey College.The pilot program’s total reach was 150 new 5th graders each year, and fundamentals of the program included early college field trips, parent presentations, a place at Chaffey College, and financial aid. The pilot program was a success, but if the community wanted to impact change, it needed to reach a greater number of students.So in 2011, Promise Scholars was launched by the Ontario-Montclair School and Chaffey Joint Union High School Districts with a new strategy and new set of partners, including California State University San Bernardino, Cal Poly Pomona, Inland Empire United Way, and City of Ontario. 

Greater Impact

The partnerships proved to be a change agent. Last year, more than 7,000 fifth, seventh, eighth, and twelfth graders received a combination of college trips, financial aid application assistance workshops and guest lectures on college and career. Over 500 parents participated in workshops and trainings.What’s more is that the list of partners continues to grow – particularly the educational partners. Nineteen community colleges and universities are now partnering with Promise Scholars. In addition to the promise for every qualifying student to have a guaranteed place at Chaffey College, which has been extended now to Cal Poly Pomona, California State University, San Bernardino; and California State University, Bakersfield. Local organizations and businesses are catching on, too. Other partners include the Ontario Chamber of Commerce, Inland Empire Economic Partnership, and Alliance for Education. Businesses that support Promise Scholars include Crown Toyota, HMC Architects, the Gas Company, Allstar Kia, Bank of America, Kaiser Permanente and Cardenas Markets – which just announced recently that it would be donating $50,000 to Promise Scholars program. 

Access for All

The benefits of increased partnership since 2011 has allowed the program to increase its scale and scope to what it is today. And it will be increased partnerships that will allow it to continue to grow. After all, the goal is to extend the promise to all 23,000 Ontario-Montclair School District students and 9,000 students at the Chaffy Joint Union High School District.“Equity is a core principal in public education. We have to provide equal access to all,” Sorensen said. “But another part of it is that research shows that if you want to make significant impacts, you need to be able to change the whole ecosystem. We need to change the norms. And to change norms, you need to the change the ecosystem for everyone – not just a select few.”In order to continue their promise, more volunteer presenters, donors, board members and collaborators are needed, Sorensen said. Individuals and organizations support the Promise Scholars through various fundraisers, including the Golf Tournament on June 12, through corporate donations or by volunteering.To learn more, visit their website