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5 entire high schools in Chicago get full college scholarships

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Students at five Chicago high schools don't have to worry about how they will pay for college. They're part of an extraordinary program. And Sarah Karp, of member station WBEZ, was there today when students at one of the schools found out about it.

SARAH KARP, BYLINE: A DJ kicked off the assembly while parents and students with pompoms in their hands wondered what was going on. The auditorium at Juarez High School on Chicago's southwest side was packed. Soon enough, entrepreneur Pete Kadens took the stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PETE KADENS: I ask that you give me your undivided attention just for 30 seconds here while I convey a really important message - because, like I said, no one walks out of this room the same today.

KARP: Kadens then told them that they're all getting college scholarships. That's tuition, room and board, books and fees. They can choose from 20 colleges. And not only that, but one of their parents also can get a scholarship to go to college or to a job training program.

While full rides have been awarded before, this is a big deal. Every student, from freshmen to seniors in five Chicago high schools - 4,000 altogether - are getting the news this week that they will have scholarships waiting for them. It's being paid for by Hope Chicago, a group started by Kadens and other philanthropists.

When the announcement was made at Juarez, the auditorium of mostly low-income, mostly immigrant moms and dads erupted.

(CHEERING)

KARP: Tears started streaming from Kimberly Lopez's eyes, and her friend hugged her.

KIMBERLY LOPEZ: I couldn't help but just, like, cry and think about, like, all the limitations. And that was, like, the only thing that was limiting me to my college education was, like, the financial. And it was just, like - it would have been such a hard thing.

KARP: Lopez's four brothers and sisters and her mother and father work as laborers. Before this announcement, her plan was to try to piece together scholarships and work to cover expenses.

Principal Juan Carlos Ocon interrupted the assembly to tell parents that this was also for undocumented immigrants. And again, a burst of applause. Ocon says he's seen the hope drain out of the face of students when they realize they can't get any financial aid.

JUAN CARLOS OCON: It leaves me speechless in so many ways. I think that when our undocumented students realized that their dream of going to college can be fulfilled because that obstacle, that barrier isn't present, the sky's the limit for those students.

KARP: Michelle Miller-Adams is with the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. She says the scope of what is being offered is unheard of. She's studied programs that offer students a sure way to pay tuition, often called promise programs. But she says few pay for everything.

MICHELLE MILLER-ADAMS: And the amazing thing is it works for much, much less generous programs. So if the message around affordability is simple enough and it can be delivered consistently throughout K-12, it changes what students do when they finish high school.

KARP: Miller-Adams also doesn't know of a program offering parents a free ride. Brenda Munoz is a stay-at-home mom who was planning to go back to work. She says this will completely change her trajectory.

BRENDA MUNOZ: So all my check was going directly to her school because, like I told her, we're a team.

KARP: Now she has a new plan.

MUNOZ: I'm going to school. I am going to school. There is no staying home, you know? If they're giving the parent an opportunity, too, hey, why not take it, you know? Let's dream big.

KARP: Those providing these scholarships help giving parents and their children a free college education will go a long way toward lifting up entire communities.

For NPR News, I'm Sarah Karp in Chicago.

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE COMETS SONG, "JENNIFER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.