Pottawattamie Promise opens doors of opportunity

Pottawattamie Promise is in its third year, with 416 students selected for full-ride scholarships to Iowa Western Community College.

“We’ve actually selected five classes,” said Kathleen Rapp, vice president of grants and initiatives for the Iowa West Foundation, who coordinates the program.

Students are chosen during their sophomore years in high school, Rapp said. The third group of scholarship recipients began academic programs at Iowa Western this fall.

Among the scholars are Kayme Jefferis, who graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School this spring and is studying nursing at Iowa Western. She was glad to find out the scholarships were available after she moved to the area from Pensacola, Florida, her sophomore year.

“I was really surprised, because when I was in Florida, there was nothing like this,” she said. “If I had stayed down there, I would have never gotten these opportunities.”

Jefferis didn’t wait for the scholarship to kick in, though. She took human biology, anatomy, public speaking, composition and developmental psychology at Iowa Western while she was still in high school.

“When I was taking classes, I was working three jobs and doing school and cheerleading, so I can’t even imagine going to school if I didn’t have this scholarship,” she said. “When I figured out everything was going to be free, it was like a weight lifted off my shoulders.”

Jefferis signed up for her first class — human biology — on a Friday and started the following Monday, she said.

“After I took that, I got a lot of confidence and started taking more and more,” she said.

Jefferis is now taking nutrition, sociology, human anatomy, psychology and a pre-requisite course. She is grateful that her advisor postponed leaving campus for the summer to help her figure out her schedule for this fall.

“I’ll never forget she stopped her vacation to help me set up my classes,” she said.

Depending on a student’s academic background, completing an associate degree in nursing can take up to three years, Jefferis said.

“I’m going to try to work it out so I can graduate in two years,” she said.

From there, she plans to transfer and finish a bachelor’s degree.

Jefferis got interested in nursing because of her mom, who is a nursing assistant, she said.

“She has always been in nursing, so I’ve always watched her work,” she said. “And I’ve always loved going to the doctor’s office. I was the only little kid who liked going to the doctor.”

Pottawattamie Promise was initiated in April 2015 by the Iowa West Foundation with partners Aksarben Foundation, Peter Kiewit Foundation and Iowa Western.

The first year, only students in the Council Bluffs and Riverside community school districts were eligible, Rapp said. Since then, the Lewis Central and AHSTW school districts have joined. That leaves Treynor, Underwood and Tri-Center to be added in future years.

“Our vision is that all school districts in Pottawattamie County will be part of this program by 2020,” she said.

The program has a goal of preparing people for the workforce and helping them prepare for decent jobs where they can earn a living wage, Rapp said.

“By 2018, 60 percent of the jobs will require a post-secondary degree or certificate,” she said. “We really wanted to make sure that students were ready and were prepared for that.”

Scholarship recipients are selected based on eligibility for the Pell grant, being on track to graduate high school, maintaining a grade-point average of at least a 2.0 (a “C” average) and interest in a profession where they will need a degree or certificate offered by Iowa Western.

Applicants are asked to get a reference, and the school makes sure they are Pell-eligible, Rapp said. Then they are interviewed by their high school and the college.

If a student is eligible for a Pell grant when they are selected but their family’s income goes up before they graduate from high school, the student is not thrown out of the Pottawattamie Promise program, Rapp said.

“We don’t want to penalize any families for improving their financial situation,” she said.

Once students are selected, they receive support services and take College Statistics, Strategies for Academic Success and Career Exploration to help them prepare for college.

Students in the first two cohorts haven’t gravitated toward any particular field, Rapp said, although there is strong interest in allied health professions, information technology and business.

“We’ve really kind of pulled a diverse selection of majors,” she said.

While most participants have chosen a two-year degree or short-term certificate program at Iowa Western, some who have finished two-year degrees — and thereby completed the Pottawattamie Promise program — have decided to go on to a four-year college on their own, Rapp said.

One of the goals of the program is to help students from lower income families break the cycle of poverty, Rapp said.

“Education is one of the ways we can stop the cycle of generational poverty,” she said.

When that happens, it gives the community a more skilled labor force, increases the tax base and creates a more educated populace, Rapp said.

“I think all of those things lend themselves to a stronger community,” she said. “I think to have a strong community, you need to have a strong educational system. Today’s kindergartners are tomorrow’s workforce.”

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