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A third-grade class was stunned with a free ride to college

Students must stay in the Arizona school district to get the gift from a local family foundation

Quintin Boyce, the Roosevelt School District superintendent, announced the College Promise program to parents and students at Bernard Black Elementary School. (Roosevelt School District)

Erika Valadez is finishing up her freshman year at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, a prospect she said would not have been possible without the generosity of a local family.

In 2012, the Rosztoczy Foundation — a private family organization based in Avondale, Ariz. — promised Valadez and 83 other third-graders a full scholarship to college.

Although Valadez, 19, could have applied for student loans, grants and scholarships that would have made higher education more accessible, “I think I would have taken a few gap years to try to earn some money,” she said. Now, “I won’t graduate with over $100,000 in debt.”

As a third-grader, Valadez couldn’t comprehend the gravity of the gift, but as she reached high school and was able to focus on her classes without worrying about money for college, she realized that “it’s a really big opportunity.”

“It impacts not only you, but everyone around you,” she said, adding that her family wasn’t in a financial situation to fund her university studies.

Ten years after the Rosztoczy Foundation made its first grant, another group of 63 third-graders in Phoenix was surprised with the same promise: a full ride to college, including tuition and room and board.

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The entire third grade class at Bernard Black Elementary School congregated with their parents for what they thought would be a standard assembly on a recent Monday evening.

Quintin Boyce, the Roosevelt School District superintendent, broke the news that all of the students in third grade at the school would have their college expenses covered. At first, parents were in disbelief, but once the initial shock dissipated, nearly every parent broke down in tears of joy.

“There wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” Boyce said of the assembly on April 25. “It was a really precious moment. In my 20 years in education, it was one of the most memorable — if not the most memorable — experience I’ve had.”

The surprise announcement had a profound impact on parents, many of whom said they could not fathom saving enough money to send their kids to college. About 90 percent of the school district qualifies for free or reduced-price lunches, the superintendent said.

The average cost of a college education in the United States is $35,331 per year, according to the Education Data Initiative, though the cost varies depending on whether the school is in state or out of state, private or public.

The cost of higher education has risen exponentially through the years, with an annual growth rate of nearly 7 percent.

Citing that and other reasons, parents at Bernard Black Elementary School were grateful for the unexpected gift.

“I got very emotional,” said Evelia Castaneda, whose son, Abisai, is a third-grader. She and her husband were overwhelmed with relief and excitement.

“It will be a big difference,” Asael Castaneda said.

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Knowing he has a full ride to college, Abisai already has a goal in mind: “I want to become a doctor,” he said.

The Rosztoczy Foundation was founded in 2005 by the late Ferenc E. Rosztoczy, a Hungarian-born chemist who built several successful businesses after moving to the United States in 1957. His aim was to provide scholarship opportunities to Hungarian students to study in America.

In 2012, he introduced the College Promise program, which works to send groups of local students who live in socioeconomically disadvantaged areas to college.

That year, the foundation offered to send 84 third-graders at Michael Anderson School in Avondale to college. Of them, 67 students graduated from the local high school district last year, and so far, 34 are enrolled in college. Students have five years to use their eligibility.

“When we felt like we had success as they were graduating last year, we decided we want to do more of this,” said Ferenc Rosztoczy’s son, Tom Rosztoczy, who now runs the foundation with his mother and brother. “We spent some time trying to see if it had made a difference, and we felt like it had.”

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He said their goal is to eventually award the scholarships to two elementary schools a year, adding that the offer will be extended to another group of third-graders next month.

The decision to grant the scholarships to students in third grade is based on research they’d done.

“We wanted to start young enough so that the kids and the parents would change how they thought about education,” Rosztoczy said.

To maintain the full scholarship, students must graduate from the local public high school district, maintain a grade-point average of 2.0 or higher in college and earn at least 12 credits per semester.

Rosztoczy added that one of the family’s goals is also to bolster local public school districts by ensuring motivated students stay in school.

The scholarship covers about $120,000 per student, which is roughly the cost of what it would be to attend a state school for four years. If a child chooses to attend a more expensive program, they would pay the difference.

Students are eligible for the scholarship if they enroll in school before eighth grade as long as they meet or beat the national average on a standardized test. At Michael Anderson School, 45 students who joined the class after third grade were eligible.

In the Roosevelt elementary school district, nearly 86 percent of students are recorded as economically disadvantaged. While there is no data detailing how many of those students attend college, 38 percent of seniors in the class of 2021 from the local high school district — where many Roosevelt elementary students continue their studies — went to college, according to a district representative.

Three months ago, when the family first approached Boyce with the scholarship idea, “I was dumbfounded,” he said. “It is truly a life-changing offer for our kiddos. Having access to college is one of the ways we disrupt the cycle of poverty.”

The family let him decide which school was best suited for the funding.

“It was an impossible decision,” said Boyce, explaining that he based the selection on financial need and student population. In the end, Bernard Black Elementary School fit the bill.

“To have a guarantee that it is already there waiting, it makes it so much easier to really push and focus on being an amazing student. It’s liberating,” said Boyce, whose single mother worked multiple jobs to send him to college.

For Valadez, who was her high school valedictorian and is now studying criminal justice and forensic science, that was certainly the case.

“Just knowing that I had the scholarship was so motivating; it made everything more real,” Valadez said. “It changed the course of my life.”

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