Madalyn Ciampi – Submitted photo

You are the executive director of Providence Promise. Your Vision statement is to “increase the K-12 and postsecondary success of Providence Public School and Charter School students and to help ensure a brighter future for the students, their families, and the community.” Can you elaborate on that?

We know that education, specifically, higher education, is a tool for systemic change. In fact, many upwardly mobile jobs and industries require some form of postsecondary education, whether that be a 2 year, 4 year, certificate, or graduate degree. Yet, higher education remains largely inaccessible to historically marginalized identities. We take a unique, two generational approach to postsecondary access and success by working with both students and their families. Our programming empowers students and their families to be partners and advocates in their educational pursuits. Not only that, but when students are successful, the success doesn’t stop there. We want to help Providence students be successful so that they can come back home and help lift their families and the Providence community as a whole. 

And Providence Promise aims to combat “the multitude of structural barriers to post-secondary education, especially for marginalized families.” What are those barriers?

Traditional College Savings Account (CSA) programs are inaccessible to the majority of marginalized identities. In fact, a recent report cited that “less than 1% of families with household incomes under $75K currently save in 529s or similar savings vehicles”. Traditional CSA programs require complex forms with unfamiliar language often only provided in English. PVD Promise minimizes access gaps by conducting outreach throughout Providence; working individually with families on the CSA enrollment process in both English and Spanish; providing translated materials; facilitating on-going family engagement and support, and providing families with a robust array of financial incentives for their accounts. Our ultimate goal is to make the pathway to postsecondary more accessible to more people, regardless of their socioeconomic status and background.

You offer solutions through a “multi-prong approach.” Can you break those down for us, starting with Fostering.

PVD Promise fosters a relationship with families that is built on transparency and trust. This begins when we partner with parents/guardians to enroll children from birth through 9th grade in our program, opening a 529 CSA for each. PVD Promise ensures that families feel fully informed of the process and the associated benefits. Additionally, families commit about 1% of their annual income to each of the CSAs, owned by the family, monthly.

Second is Investing. What is that?

PVD Promise partners with families to help them grow their account by providing a $100 seed deposit to each account upon enrollment. PVD Promise continues to invest in CSAs via the Early Scholarship Program, which offers students and families hundreds of opportunities to earn additional contributions for their participation in incentivized activities. Students can earn up to $3,000 per year in incentive awards.

And third is Empowering. How does that work?

PVD Promise offers robust, on-going Family Engagement and Youth Engagement Programs. These programs are designed to empower families to be advocates in their child’s education and community and to equip students with the tools and resources they need to be successful in their post secondary endeavors. Programming is community-responsive, bilingual in English and Spanish, and planned in partnership with member councils.

What is the history of Providence Promise?

PVD Promise recently celebrated the six-year anniversary of its first student enrollment. Since then, PVD Promise has grown to become a stable organization with a proven track record of growth and impact. In the last six years, PVD Promise has increased its enrollment to 1,060 students, cumulative college savings to $1,314,020, annual operating budget to over $920,000, full-time staff to a team of six, and implemented robust, community-responsive Youth and Family Engagement Programming, among other successes. We anticipate that this trend in growth will continue as PVD Promise, experienced a 59% one-year growth in enrollment during 2022. We are currently in year two of a three-year strategic plan, in which we anticipate enrolling 300-400 students per year, with an increase in program participation and college savings, accordingly.

What about some of the numbers? According to your 2022 annual report, total student enrollment to date is 917. Give us a snapshot of those students.

Our enrollment has actually increased to 1,060 since the release of our annual report in January 2023. What we have witnessed, and what we expect will continue, is a community need and interest in what we have to offer. Based on these trends, we project to enroll another 200 students between now and next January. Enrolled students are a diverse group of multicultural, and multilingual families from across the city. Our participants, who range in age from birth to college sophomores, include:

● 96% students of color

● 71% identify as Latinx

● 47% male students

● 53% female students

● 90% students from low-income households (low-income defined in this case as families earning under $60,000 per year – AMI)

● 52% of students at or under the age of 10

● 73% of students will be first generation college graduates

● 20% of students will be first generation high school graduate

In addition to students, we serve about 1,500 family members. The demographics closely reflect those of Providence students, although we estimate gender composition to skew more heavily as female.

The annual report states that 73% of the young people you serve are first-generation college students. Give us a sampling of their backgrounds and the schools they attend.

The majority of our students are trailblazers, as they will be the first in their families to graduate from a college or university. We focus on early planning, believing that it is never too early to begin discussing and preparing for the major financial and time commitment that is higher education. Our approach has proved effective, because more than half of our students are under the age of 10 – giving each student and their family years to prepare for college while their savings grow.

Of our total 1,060 students, 17 have graduated from high school and are pursuing careers or education beyond high school. These PVD Promise graduates attend or will be attending the University of Rhode Island, the Community College of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College, Williams College, Vassar College, the University of New Haven, and Johnson and Wales University. The 2023 PVD Promise high school graduates were collectively accepted to more than 20 different colleges and universities throughout the East Coast. As we continue to age as an organization, so will our students. We are excited for this number of scholars and graduates to grow as we support them along their journeys.

And can you summarize the reaction from these students – and their families, teachers and eventual employers?

A spotlight on a long-time, founding PVD Promise student, Wilber Morales Reyes, offers a lens into the personal experiences and triumphs of our amazing high school graduates.

Wilber is seizing every opportunity while paving the way for the next class of scholars. Wilber, a current freshman at the University of Rhode Island, is a first-generation college student. He became heavily involved in PVD Promise when he was a high school student at the Providence Career & Technical Academy. Coming from a low-income and immigrant background, his first thought about PVD Promise was, “That’s great! That helps my mom and myself out paying for college,” noting the anticipated expense of books, on top of tuition. Wilber eventually became very involved when he realized all of the opportunities there were to earn college funding. By high school graduation, he was maxing out the PVD Promise incentive program.

The Mechanical Engineering and Japanese double-major is taking full advantage of the school’s international engineering program. In his last year of the program, he’ll spend half of the year abroad and half of the year working. When he is not busy studying, he can be found at URI Crew Club or participating in the PVD Promise Mentorship Program as a mentor to a PVD Promise student like him.

Wilber often felt he was at a disadvantage with his education, having attended underperforming schools and being faced with online-learning during the pandemic. “It can be hard balancing time as a mentor,” Wilber shares. However, he stays involved so he can offer support he didn’t feel he had to the next class of scholars, such as what to study, where to go, and general advice about college and career planning.

When asked for advice to current and prospective PVD Promise students, Wilber responded “Get involved as soon as possible and take advantage of those incentives. It might seem like a little bit but they will add up. Everything helps,” also noting that the program is a good way for students to socialize and make new friends.

We are proud to be a page in the story that Wilber is writing. As more of our students graduate, we hope to have more spotlights like this one in the future.

Tell us a bit about your staff and Board of Directors.

Our Board of Directors are a diverse group of volunteers who share a passion and commitment for making higher education accessible to all students regardless of their means. The board consists of professionals across various fields, including law, finance, education, and public service. We also have a number of students and parents who serve on the board in active, voting roles. We prioritize community voice, recognizing it as an essential part of conversations regarding our programming or overall strategy.  The demographics of the Board reflect those of the Providence community we serve. Our board of directors is 53% female and 53% BIPOC, and includes a Spanish-only speaker. All board materials are therefore provided in English and Spanish, and interpretation is provided at all board meetings and events.

Our staff is currently comprised of six individuals, though there were previously just two full-time staff in 2021. Similarly, our staff possess a wide range of knowledge and skills in fields such as social services, education, financial management, healthcare, and community engagement. Our team is 83% female, 67% BIPOC, and 67% multilingual. We also receive support from the Brown University Urban Education Policy Master’s Program and internship programs at local universities, Providence College, Rhode Island College, and the University of Rhode Island.

Could Providence Promise serve as a model for other school districts in Rhode Island (and beyond)?

PVD Promise is highly replicable in cities or districts with similar demographics. Many places across the country are already utilizing automatic enrollment models to ensure that students have early college planning tools and resources, such as with Boston Saves. In these cases, students have an account opened for them concurrent with Kindergarten enrollment and would need to opt-out of an account, versus in our case of seeking out the program and choosing to enroll. We do our best to meet families where they are and frequently attend school and community-based events; however, your knowledge of who we are and what we do is dependent on if you have the time to attend these events or to seek us out. Eventually, we hope to leverage automatic enrollment so that all students can benefit from this program, rather than those who may have the means to access and enroll with us.

What’s on the horizon for Providence Promise?

With the start of the new fiscal year, PVD Promise is also beginning Year 2 of its current 3-Year Strategic Plan. As part of this plan, PVD Promise anticipates an increase in total enrollment and participation in the Family Engagement, Youth Engagement, and Early Scholarship Programs. Specifically, PVD Promise will:

● Expand enrollment from 1,060 students to at least 1,360;

● Grow cumulative savings from $1,300,000 to at least $1,700,000;

● Award at least $225,000 in Early Scholarship incentive awards;

● Expand number of and scope of Family Engagement and Youth Engagement activities

● Increase average attendance of workshops and programs by 5 per program (35 for Family Engagement, 30 for virtual Youth Engagement programming, 20 for in-person Youth Engagement programming);

● Expand the Mentorship Program from 25 pairs to at least 35 pairs; and

● Expand the Family Champions Program from 7 Champions to 12 Champions

Additionally, we hope to continue to pursue the goal of automatic enrollment in Providence and, perhaps, the surrounding communities.