The Republican / Michael S. Gordon
Joseph W. Paige, seated right, a financial aid adviser with the Access Springfield Promise Program, is surrounded by students talking about aid for college costs. Clockwise from the front are Giorver W. Brown, 18, Keishla M. Rosado, 17, and Xiomara L. Perez, 18. They are in Paige’s office at the high School of Commerce in Springfield.
$116,750: Total scholarship funds issued for 189 students
$271,810: Financial aid counseling
$55,778: Administrative overhead, not including office space donated by Springfield Technical Community College
$29,662: Administrative start-up expenses
Source: Action Center for Educational Services and Scholarships
SPRINGFIELD – Miguelina Felix, 17, is on her way to becoming the first member of her family to attend college, and she thanks the Springfield Promise program for helping that dream become a reality.
Under the Springfield Promise program, Felix is among hundreds of high school seniors here who have received financial-aid counseling to help pursue college scholarships, grants and loans.
The Finance Control Board created Springfield Promise last July to provide both financial-aid counseling and “last dollar” scholarships of up to $1,000 to city students. The plan was to use interest from an initial $52 million, interest-free state loan to fund the program.
Today, the program’s future is uncertain as state legislators are weighing whether to tap into the $46.8 million left in the loan fund, taking $35.5 million to help balance the state budget. The Republican has also learned that even in this first year of the program, the interest received on the loan monies – now averaging $11,000 per month – will not cover all of the program’s costs.
The loan was granted to the city in 2004 to help the city deal with severe budget deficits, but the control board, which was disbanded last year, authorized the use of just the interest earnings to finance Springfield Promise.
Based on current earnings, the annual interest income will be $131,000, according to Timothy J. Plante, the city’s finance director. The first-year budget for the program is $474,000.
Plante said on Thursday the city “is working toward a more lucrative investment strategy to earn the maximum amount of interest possible.”
Felix, a senior at Central High School, is one example of how the program is marking success. She’ll be attending the Massachusetts College of Art and Design as a fine arts major with hopes of some day opening her own gallery.
“I feel very thankful,” Felix said recently. “It was really valuable. I got into the school I wanted, and I got the financial aid I needed.”
Without the help of financial-aid counselor Nicole Bihler, Felix says she wouldn’t have gotten through the process in time. “It is somewhat stressful. I applied to seven schools, each school mandating different things,” Felix said.
The Action Center for Educational Services and Scholarships – a Boston organization known as ACCESS – is being paid close to $300,000 a year under a five-year contract with the city for the program. to provide one-on-one financial-aid counseling to approximately 700 seniors, like Felix, and more than 600 students have attended financial-aid workshops, according to executive director Bob Giannino-Racine.
The program consists of a director and four advisers who assist students in 11 schools including charter schools.
Giannino-Racine cites the fact that applications for Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts Scholarships have climbed from 129 in 2009 to 248 in 2010 as one measure of the success of Springfield Promise.
Mayor Domenic J. Sarno is urging the House to agree with a proposal from Gov. Deval L. Patrick, that Springfield would pay back the money immediately except for $11 million which would be forgiven and used for Springfield Promise.
Felix is among many students who hope Springfield Promise will continue.
Scholarship recipients, now in college, include Brendan C. Woodard. Woodard graduated from Sabis International Charter School last year and attends Springfield Technical Community College, aided by a $500 scholarship from Springfield Promise.
“I think they should keep running the program,” Woodard said. “It really helped me out. It gave me money to buy the books I need.”
The purpose of the Springfield Promise program is to fulfill two promises, said James O’S. Morton, chairman of the Springfield Promise Advisory Board and a former member of the Finance Control Board which created it. “One is to repay the state loan, and the other promise was to leave a legacy that supported Springfield youth in their efforts to attend college and hopefully bring back the intellectual capital that comes from going to college into the Springfield community so our community can ultimately benefit from that intellectual capital,” he said.
Thomas R. Durkee, a senior at the High School of Science and Technology, said his counselor, Gia Godette, helped him tackle what initially seemed “like a daunting task.”
“She really helped me out to ease my fears about transitioning to college life, not only financial aid, but also like a life coach,” said Durkee, who will be attending Westfield State College.
The program is very helpful in helping students access college aid that is out there and can be obtained, he said. “It gives us a level playing field,” he said.
Joseph W. Paige, of Springfield, a financial-aid adviser at the High School of Commerce and Renaissance School, said he gets great satisfaction from the job.
“I enjoy the program,” Paige said. “It’s one of the most rewarding jobs I ever had. We help kids realize their dreams of going to college.”
“We work with the kids to research as many grants and scholarships out there that might meet their needs and profile,” Paige said.
Azell M. Cavaan, chief communications officer for the Springfield Public Schools, said Springfield Promise has “helped educate students and families that a college education is a realistic objective that can be obtained when one understands the process, tools and resources available to help them meet the financial requirements.”
Many city students are “first generation college students” who serve as “trail blazers” for others in the family, Cavaan noted.
While the high schools already had counselors to help students with the financial-aid process, the addition of the ACCESS advisors has allowed existing staff to help students in other critical areas such as academic and career planning, personal and social counseling, she said.
Members of the Springfield Promise Advisory Board have praised the program. In a recent letter to the editors of The Republican, advisory board members Victor Woolridge and retired Judge William H. Abrashkin, said Springfield Promise “is a low-cost, high-impact program of vast importance to Springfield and the graduates of its high schools.”