ENGLEWOOD — Students at South Side public charter school got a life-changing surprise Thursday afternoon, when they found out they’ll all be able to pursue higher education for free.
Nonprofit Hope Chicago is funding full-ride scholarships for all students at Noble Johnson College Prep, 6350 S. Stewart Ave. in Englewood. One guardian per household is also eligible for a scholarship to continue their education for free.
The scholarships will cover all costs — including tuition, room and board, books and fees — at 20 Illinois colleges, universities and trade schools that partner with the nonprofit. All Illinois state schools, and City Colleges of Chicago work with Hope Chicago, spokesperson Julia Brun said.
“It’s going to really impact me a lot,” said senior Giovanny Caballero, who wants to study mechanical engineering or business. Both interests are inspired by his father, he said.
“Now I don’t have to worry about my family going into debt and all that,” Caballero said. “I can finally talk to them and say, ‘Hey, I’m going for free.'”
Under the guise of a school assembly, dozens of students — most of them seniors like Caballero who will graduate in June — gathered with their parents in the school’s gym. The assembly kicked off with a set from DJ Mike P and WGCI radio personality Trey White as emcee.
After White led a relay race to dress and undress in a cap and gown, students watched a video in which their classmates discussed the economic, language and social barriers they face in achieving their higher education goals.
“My biggest obstacle right now is definitely the financial part, especially since I only have my mom with me, supporting me,” one student said in the video.
Hope Chicago CEO and former Chicago Public Schools CEO Dr. Janice Jackson spoke and introduced the nonprofit’s founder Pete Kadens.
Kadens, who taught at Johnson College Prep in the 2019-20 school year, announced the news that would help students overcome some of those barriers.
“You will go to college for free,” Kadens said.
Some students immediately jumped out of their seats and shouted with joy at the news, while others remained quiet, seemingly in shock at what they’d heard.
“I was not expecting this at all,” said senior Fred Hail III, who either wants to pursue a career as a demolition worker or study psychology. “This is a great accomplishment in my life.”
“This is a great opportunity,” Alissa Martin said. She’s an honors student with a long list of extracurriculars under her belt, including serving as president of the student council and participating in Girls 4 Science and After School Matters.
The scholarship announcement motivates Martin to score well on her SAT and finish her high school career successfully “because I really want to get to a great school,” said the junior, who plans to major in psychology.
Hope Chicago has taken an enormous burden of stress and potential debt off of families in and around Englewood, parents said.
“We’ve been trying to figure out ways, me and her dad, about paying for college,” Martin’s mother Audrey Davis said. “We’d already been talking about student loans and what we’ve got to do. When I tell you I could cry — I’m so, so happy, and now I have the opportunity to go back to college, too.”
“I was filling out applications after applications for scholarships, and trying not to take out a loan to be able to put him through school,” Hail’s mother Stephanie Inis said. “It’s just a blessing.”
With the announcement that one parent will get a full ride, Hail and his mother “are going to do this together so I can finally finish my college degree,” Inis said.
Inis has about two years of college credits left to earn, “so if we’re going to school together, [Hail] can get a bachelor’s; I can get a bachelor’s; and we’ve done it together as a team,” she said.
Johnson College Prep is the latest school to be surprised this week with full-ride Hope Chicago scholarships, after Morgan Park High School, Benito Juarez Community Academy in Pilsen and Al Raby High School in Garfield Park.
A fifth school will be announced Friday, said Ted Koenig, chairman and CEO of Monroe Capital. The Chicago-based lender invested $10 million “to kick off the entire program,” while other investors have brought the scholarship fund’s total to about $40 million, he said.
The students said they were so thankful for Hope Chicago, funders like Koenig and Monroe Capital — and most passionately, for the loved ones they’ve leaned on as they’ve grown.
“The main person I want to thank for helping me through this all the way is my mom,” Hail said as he stood next to his teary-eyed mother.
“She was the one there for me when my dad passed, and she has been helping me through everything,” he said. “I love you, Mom. thank you very much for helping me.”
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.