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Janice Jackson and Pete Kadens team up on education nonprofit – Crain’s Chicago Business

“It was maybe five or 10 minutes before we reached out,” joked Kadens, who’s known for launching successful solar energy and marijuana companies before stepping back to focus on his family’s foundation. 

Now the trio is publicly detailing their plans for the first time — and they’re not tempering expectations for how the new organization, called HOPE Chicago, will tackle some of the city’s most intractable problems from educational inequity to runaway crime. Jackson joins as its CEO. 

With the ambitious goal of raising $1 billion over the next decade, HOPE Chicago is rolling out what it calls a “first-of-its-kind” scholarship program: the organization will pay the full cost of college for CPS graduates in need and offer the same support to a parent or guardian who wants to resume their own studies. It will also help provide counseling, mentoring and career guidances to high school students.

“I believe that poverty is a multi-generational issue and so we have to solve it with multi-generational options,” said Kadens, who launched a smaller version of the initiative that provided scholarships to about 80 students at a high school in his hometown of Toledo last year. “The parents cannot go to college or post-secondary unless their kid is enrolled … it creates this unique degree of stickiness.”

Modeled after “promise” programs that pay for tuition and related expenses for public school graduates in other cities, HOPE Chicago projects it can provide about 24,000 scholarships and assist 6,000 of their family members pursuing post-secondary education in the next 10 years. The initiative also represents the type of public-private partnership that’s being tested in the city’s Invest South/West program to uplift blighted communities. 

In Toledo, all of the students who had parents take advantage of the program returned to college for a second year, Kadens said, and about 90% of all students in the program remained enrolled.

Kadens and Koenig, president and CEO of middle-market buyout firm Monroe Capital, provided an initial $20 million donation to cover the nonprofit’s operational costs for its first three years. The co-founders plan to leverage their vast networks of business executives, civic leaders and philanthropists to grow investment in the program. The nonprofit has also secured an additional $25 million in outside commitments and aims to raise $100 million in its first year alone.

Koenig, who founded his firm in 2004 and sheparded a spinoff through an IPO, said banks, law firms, private equity firms and real estate developers can all play a part by investing in students because “just donating money alone hasn’t worked.” He said he will personally reach out to his contacts. 

“Every middle-market busines that’s here in the city benefits from an educated and stable and thoughtful workforce,” he said. “I think we can move mountains here by getting the business community behind this effort and basically building an arsenal for Janice to do her thing.”

Once again, the group is moving quickly. The first cohort of 14 students have already received scholarships and began classes at Chicago State University and the City Colleges of Chicago. The organization is working to finalize agreements with other two- and four-year institutions that will participate in the program, eyeing the state’s 12 public universities, community colleges and trade schools. 

Jackson, who was tapped to head CPS in late 2017 and rose through the ranks after working as a teacher and principal, possesses a deep knowledge of the district and the challenges faced by its most vulnerable students. She said she’s in the process of identifying CPS schools that can take advantage of the program and will focus on ones on the South and West Sides, where the need is greatest.

About 81% of high school students graduated from CPS in 2020, according to district data, but only 67% enrolled in college. Students attending North Side schools were more likely to attend college than peers in other parts of the city, with just 75% of graduates remaining enrolled in college last year.

With college tuition increasing substantially to compensate for years of decreased government funding, student aid from state and federal sources don’t go as far as they used to, putting college out of reach for more students, Jackson said. She said she welcomes more investment from the corporate world, which hasn’t been consistent in the past.

“We’re going to bring together all these groups. We’re going to do something right away,” she said. “If we’re really serious about making sure students get to and through school, reducing violence, reducing poverty and increasing opportunity, this is a surefire way to do that, and we’re standing up the infrastructure.” 

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