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Hope Chicago: Charity sending students from Chicago high schools to college for free

Chicago students and parents get free college
Students and parents from five Chicago high schools getting sent to college for free 13:38

You have to admire the ambition of an inner-city high school that calls itself Johnson College Prep. Especially when a third of the students have no permanent home and many dodge violence just to get to class. But the students in this Chicago public school believe in their name. They've done the work. They've been accepted to college. Trouble is, few have the money to go. Johnson College Prep needed something like a miracle. And we were there when the miracle called Hope Chicago arrived.

Johnson College Prep, on Chicago's South Side, embraces nearly 500 students. 

Jonas Cleaves: Every student that walks in our door deserves an opportunity to be engaged by staff members who love them for no other reason except the fact that they are one of our students.

Principal Jonas Cleaves knows the names and the dreams in the halls of Johnson College Prep.

Scott Pelley: College is your middle name.

Jonas Cleaves: Absolutely. Absolutely. That's why we're here. We want kids to have a shot.

But, on the South Side, 'a shot' is hobbled by stumbling blocks and tall barriers on a narrow path to the dream. One-third of households here bring in less than $25,000 a year, according to an analysis by the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning. 

Jonas Cleaves: Right now, at least 40% of our senior class have identified either themselves or a very close relative being impacted by gun violence. Like, imagine the trauma associated with that. 

Scott Pelley: You must worry about them when they're not under this roof.

Jonas Cleaves: I's a struggle. You know, when we go on, you know, Thanksgiving breaks or any holiday break. We get those calls when there's a student who has been shot or assaulted. We receive those calls from parents and students who need support financially with a major bill.

  Jonas Cleaves

Scott Pelley: For a lot of your students, school is the safest, best part of the day.

Jonas Cleaves: It's a sanctuary.

And an inspiration.

Ajani Cunningham joined Marine Corps Junior ROTC to add some ammo to his many applications for financial aid.

Ajani Cunningham: Because I am in a 1,000 programs all at once including ROTC, debate, I have honors and AP classes. I've taken college courses. So, I'm just trying to do the most that I can to make college the least expensive.

  Ajani Cunningham

Kavarrion Newson's hopes lean on faith. 

He told us that's how he endured being raised by his grandmother who was drug addicted at the time.

Kavarrion Newson: I have so much faith in God. It's like, I'm not even gonna worry about money. Anything I've ever put in God's hands, it never failed. So, I know he'll come through. I know it, for a fact.

Jonas Cleaves: You know, we have students who are doing construction, working in warehouses-- working the night shift, getting off at 6:00 a.m. and coming to school. 

Scott Pelley: You got to admire the dedication and the character.

Jonas Cleaves: What could that kid do if given the chance?

We told the students we were writing a story about college ambition, which wasn't the whole truth. We knew what was about to happen because we'd met the man who would change their lives.

Pete Kadens: I'm a guy who got really lucky in life. I'm a guy who won a lotta lotteries: the birth lottery, the zip code lottery, the education lottery. And when I think about having won all those lotteries and all the people who are suffering, it's my chance to give them those same opportunities. That's who I am.

He is Pete Kadens, a Chicago millionaire who retired at the age of 40 after starting five companies, including one of the largest growers of cannabis.

  Pete Kadens

Scott Pelley: Sense of guilt?

Pete Kadens: Yes. 100%. I feel horribly guilty that I created this amount of wealth, and that so many people are still suffering. 

Suffering, in his view, because the richest country in history has not found a way to educate all its children.  

Pete Kadens: I used to think that college and going to college was the great equalizer. In truth, what we've come to find out; college is the great stratifier in this country. It furthers the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Most people just don't realize that. And they don't realize how expensive it is for a minority student in a disinvested community. They don't just get a bunch of financial aid. And if they do, they come out with a boatload of debt so they can't compete with their white suburban contemporaries, even after college. I just think that, fundamentally, there's a misunderstanding in this country that college is accessible to everybody. And the fact is, no it is not.

But it was about to be accessible at Johnson College Prep.

Scott Pelley: When everyone's assembled, and no one knows why, you're gonna look across that room, and what are you going to see?

Jonas Cleaves: I'm gonna see students and families who deserve this moment. You know, you asked me earlier about students that we've lost. And we often tell our families in those moments to like, "Hang in there," you know, "Stay in the fight. Don't give up. A better day is coming." This is their better day.

Ajani Cunningham was there, beside Kavarrion Newson. They didn't know what the assembly was about or who Pete Kadens was, but they will never forget. 

Pete Kadens at assembly: You are going to walk out of here forever changed today and that is because if you are a freshman, sophomore, junior or senior, at Johnson College Prep, your college tuition, your room and board, your books and fees will be paid for. You will go to college for free!

Students hear Pete Kadens' announcement that they will go to college for free.

Free. Kadens' charity, called Hope Chicago, will pay in-state tuition and expenses. An act of kindness so great it had to be squeezed to fit within belief. That same week, Kadens made the same announcement at four additional Chicago high schools. 

Pete Kadens: Look, we are operating in a city, here in Chicago, where the number one cause of death for children under the age of 18 is gunshot wounds. No, we're not going to wait anymore, it's now or never. 

Scott Pelley: How many tuitions in Chicago altogether?

Pete Kadens: We will end up funding about 30,000 individuals to go to college or trade school in the city of Chicago.

Scott Pelley: Over what period of time?

Pete Kadens: Over the next decade. That makes this the largest scholarship program in the country.

Kavarrion Newson deeply appreciated Pete Kadens, but he told us he knew who he needed to thank.

Kavarrion Newson: Well, I didn't get to pray about the assembly yet because I'm still trying to process all of those feelings because of what just happened was, I mean, simply amazing. But God will get some special time from me tonight.

  Kavarrion Newson

But in the assembly, there was more. Just when a better day couldn't be any better, Janice Jackson took the stage. The former CEO of Chicago Public Schools is the new head of Hope Chicago. 

Janice Jackson at assembly: Pete left one important part out. Parents, guess what, you're going back to school too.

Hope Chicago is sending a parent or guardian from each family to college. For Ajani Cunningham's mother, incomprehension was finally broken by the memories of her dreams deferred. 

Yolanda White hears she will also get to go to college for free.

Yolanda White: We have always had a too-close relationship with poverty and lack. 

Once homeless, Yolanda White, a single mother, cleared a path for five children -- two through college already.

Yolanda White: And I've taken all the hits so now they can go and, you know, understand that I've been the shield. And they can be free to do what they want to do with their lives.

Now it's her turn. She'd like to take technology classes to grow her baking business. 

Scott Pelley: Ajani, your mom's ferocious. 

Ajani Cunningham: She's amazing. 

Going to college with a “Hope” scholarship 05:57

Janice Jackson: The idea of parents and students going back to school together, I think that can be powerful and motivating in ways that we haven't even thought about.

Janice Jackson, the former head of Chicago schools, told us she decided to take Pete Kadens' offer to run Hope Chicago largely because of tuition for parents. 

Scott Pelley: What do you expect to happen from the fact that you're sending the parents to college?

Janice Jackson: I expect them to get better jobs, that they're going to be in a position to take care of their families. I was talking to one parent who told me she had two jobs. That is a barrier. So, I think when you strengthen the family, you strengthen whole communities. And ultimately, we're going to make our country stronger.

Scott Pelley: You're not just trying to educate this young generation; you're trying to fix the South Side of Chicago.

Janice Jackson: We have to catch up, that's the bottom line. And I may be biased but I do believe education is the single most powerful way to disrupt generational poverty. It is. And for some of our parents, once they have children, they put their hopes and dreams on hold. And so, this is an opportunity to get back in the game.

  Janice Jackson

Of course, money isn't everything. Kadens told us counselors working with Hope Chicago will guide parents and students all the way to success. 

Pete Kadens: These students need life skills training. They need mentorship. They need financial literacy. They need guidance counseling and curriculum advice. What Hope Chicago brings with our partner agencies is we wrap all those services around those students so they're not just stranded with a boatload of cash. They actually have people and teams around them to engage them so they can make it through college.

Hope Chicago is Pete Kadens' second tuition charity. In 2020, he funded scholarships in Toledo, his hometown. Kadens has pledged $15 million to his scholarships. His Hope Chicago partner, Ted Koenig, kicked in $10 million. Corporations are also donating.

Hope Chicago will cost a billion dollars, which some call ambitious.

Pete Kadens: And when they say "ambitious," they don't necessarily mean it in a positive way. They mean "crazy." But here's what we know, Scott. If we educate our families, we'll resolve a lot of the violence issues. We'll start to put pharmacies and office buildings and grocery stores into these communities. And so, yeah, we may be crazy. But this is an economic development investment as much as it is an educational investment. And we have to do it.

Scott Pelley: So many people who have lived young lives like yours with all these obstacles are just casualties in America.

Kavarrion Newson: Right.

Scott Pelley: And I wonder why you're sitting here doing so well and going to college next.

Kavarrion Newson: Because I never gave up. It's like, ok so, you know how you can play basketball? Every shot that you shoot will not always go into the net. But I guarantee you if you try over and over and over again to shoot that ball, one time it's gonna go into the net. So that's how I live my life on trying this thing over and over again. Every day we wake up, we have new mercy and new grace. 

Scott Pelley: Well, you drained a three during the assembly today.

Kavarrion Newson: I'm still processing those feelings. Today, I'll remember this day for the rest of my entire life. I'll never forget this day.

Grace and prosperity once raised monuments on the South Side. Now, even with so much forsaken, Pete Kadens sees through the neglect to the vibrance still inside. 

Pete Kadens: I think many communities around this country can have hope. Why can't there be Hope Peoria, and Hope Indianapolis and Hope Charlotte? I'd love to see other philanthropists in other communities take up this endeavor and own it.

Scott Pelley: Calling all billionaires.

Pete Kadens: Calling all billionaires. Calling all corporations. What we're doin' here is action. We want our corporations, our foundations to join us in this action.

Produced by Nicole Young. Associate producer, Kristin Steve. Broadcast associate, Michelle Karim. Edited by Matt Richman.

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