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Challenge Scholars: creating opportunity

Grand Rapids Community Foundation's newest education endeavor is making post secondary education possible for students of Grand Rapids Public Schools.
Introducing Challenge Scholar: Cris

Introducing Challenge Scholar: Cris /Terry Johnston Photography

Learn more about Challenge Scholars

If you are interested in learning more or giving to Challenge Scholars, contact Gina Bovee, Challenge Scholars Co-Director, by phone, (616)454-1751, or via email.

/Grand Rapids Public Schools

They say it takes a village to raise a child and in the eyes of Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Grand Rapids Public Schools, these words ring true. Benjamin Oliver, Challenge Scholars Advisor, and Meredith Fennema, PR & Marketing Specialist, both at Grand Rapids Community Foundation, are two of the many individuals dedicated to the success of Grand Rapids Community Foundation's newest education endeavor: Challenge Scholars.

As stated by the Community Foundation, Challenge Scholars is a "bold new community commitment built on evidence-based research, with careful long-term evaluation to ensures outcomes are achieved." The program is designed to encourage and educate students on not only the importance of post secondary education, but its affordability.

"[This program] is a very unique opportunity for these kids and we want to make sure they understand everything that comes with being a Challenge Scholar," says Oliver. "We also are focusing on building the excitement around the possibilities that come with a college or trade school degree."

Oliver advises students as young as 8 years old at Harrison Park School. He spends his time educating, informing and inspiring young students with the advantages of being a Challenge Scholar- and the opportunities that come from it.

"It's been a learning process," says Fennema. "It is challenging at times, but it's exciting to be working with these students and families, learning together as we go." Fennema is responsible for the communication pieces of the Challenge Scholars program.

"Communicating in a way that our parents and students will receive the message tangibly is very important," says Fennema. "We are making sure the language we use surrounding this program is relatable and culturally competent across the board."

Over 123 students between Harrison Park and Westwood are currently enrolled in Challenge Scholars and Oliver and Fennema are optimistic about the program's potential.

Since the program has been implemented, the participating schools have seen a near 10% increase in academic acceleration, a 5% decrease in chronic absenteeism and an over 20% increase in expected growth targets in math and reading. As a way to celebrate the program's success thus far, a special celebration for all currently enrolled Challenge Scholars will take place on Tuesday, May 6 at Grand Rapids Community College's Ford Fieldhouse.

"We want to show these kids we are behind them," says Oliver. "The Community Foundation, the colleges and universities and community are all behind these individuals. We want to make an obvious statement that we are all supporting these students and their success."

Educational support and additional resources will be provided to Challenge Scholar students should they find themselves not able to keep up with the program's requirements.

"What we're asking of the students is important, but we also understand things come up," says Oliver. "If a student's grades slip, we're there with assistance. As this program continues, we will be looking at the trends and making sure we're stepping in with the support these students need to succeed."

Obtaining a college or trade school degree is no longer wishful thinking for these students because of the work done by Oliver, Fennema, colleges and trade schools and the community.

"There are those parents who you shake hands with, thank them for coming out to an information event and they look you in the eyes and say, 'My child would never have had this opportunity if it was not for Challenge Scholars,'" says Fennema. "It's just a matter of helping everyone understand the impact of this unique opportunity. It's life-changing."

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