When 24-year-old Taylor Naylor received an acceptance letter to a newly formed education program that aims to help her complete college, she thought it was a scam.

“This is all so new. I didn’t think I’d make the cut,” she said as her 3-year-old daughter played around her. “I’m not used to being the one that’s in. Usually I’m the one that’s out, not selected.” 

Naylor’s acceptance letter is from the Pittsburgh Scholar House, a new nonprofit based on a model developed in Kentucky intended to help single parents complete higher education by providing financial aid, transportation and potentially housing, and bolster their “social capital” through things like networking skills and leadership opportunities.

The program’s goal is to help families to spur generational wealth, focusing on Naylor’s education as much as her daughter’s. The University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Childhood Development will be working with the program to create school readiness classes for participants’ children.

The Pittsburgh Scholar House, running an annual operating budget of $350,000, accepted 100 parents after getting more than 200 applications. The program comes at no cost to the parents and their college educations will be funded through financial assistance.

“You’ll hear about programs breaking generational poverty, absolutely we need to do that,” said Scholar House CEO Diamonte Walker, who left her position as deputy executive director of Pittsburgh’s Urban Redevelopment Authority in April 2022. 

Diamonte Walker stands outside the Pittsburgh Scholar House Office on Allegheny Avenue the North Side on Wednesday, Dec. 7. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource)

“But after we break the cycle of poverty, then what? What’s next? It’s not enough to break a cycle. You’ve now got to begin a virtuous cycle. We’re trying to position these scholars to be the first movers in their family to set new traditions, new value systems that are going to prioritize education, higher learning.”

The Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, a group of 11 colleges and universities, helped launch the the Scholar House. The council’s funding partners are The Heinz Endowments*, Henry L. Hillman Foundation* and the PNC Foundation. After beginning the planning process for the program in 2019, the Pittsburgh Scholar House recently accepted its first cohort, which will start in January.

“We’ve identified highly motivated — a lot of them single-parent — families that are income constrained who want and aspire to do something that we’ve been calling building a cycle of generational prosperity,” Walker said.

Making a commitment to do the work

Naylor said she experienced homelessness for eight years, starting at the age of 14. After graduating from high school, Naylor tried to go to college but dropped out twice. 

“You hear of Lizzo? She’s got that line, ‘I did the work but it didn’t work.’ That really speaks to me,” she said.

Naylor said she takes care of her daughter, her teenage niece and nephew and her mother who is recovering from several strokes. It’s hard to focus on anything else, she said. 

She recently applied for college again and is enrolled for the spring semester with the Community College of Allegheny County. Naylor said she plans to major in psychology and child development. 

Walker said parents in situations like Naylor’s make the ideal candidates for the Pittsburgh Scholar House’s first cohort.

​​”The Scholar House is working to re-establish a strong foundation so that they could prioritize education as the long-term strategy to breaking the cycle of poverty,” Walker said. “If you’re dealing with mental, physical health, raising children, family getting sick, you have no transportation — these are real challenges that families are facing.”

Neveah Naylor plays with sticky notes at the Pittsburgh Scholar House office on the North Side on Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2022. Her mother, Taylor Naylor, sits behind her. (Photo by Lilly Kubit/PublicSource)

When the Pittsburgh Scholar House began devising their program, they created a focus group of single parents to see what their needs and challenges were. Walker noted that the group helped develop the current model, recalling that one participant commented that etiquette classes should be available to deal with formal settings. Walker said such a class will be available next year. 

The cohort of parents will have access to resources to help keep them in school and focused on their long-term goals.

“You get paired with a mentor, access to scholarships, you’re getting a deep focus. It’s a commitment,” Walker said. 

She said many of the issues that low-income families in the focus group identified as barriers to completing their higher education — like unstable housing and high college costs — are related to policy failures.

“And the bright side of that is it’s fixable,” Walker said. “We like to think of people experiencing poverty as some indication of lack of character, wrong value system, but really it’s just a privilege of birth, what ZIP code you’re born in, are your parents of a certain socioeconomic status and, if they’re not, do they have the sophistication and resources to navigate to get you into a private school.”

As part of their acceptance into the program, parents’ needs are assessed to determine what obstacles they may face in pursuing a degree. Based on that assessment, the program aims to help each family to overcome those barriers. If it’s a transportation problem, for example, a bus pass could help. 

In the long run, Walker wants the Pittsburgh Scholar House, as the name suggests, to house the scholars. She said she has been speaking with the Allegheny County Housing Authority about a possible housing construction project. 

Walker said that in some cases the Scholar House will provide students with scholarships to help pay for tuition, textbooks and tech purchases to help reduce accrual of debt.

Students can attend any school they’re accepted into but if they choose to attend a school that is a member of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, they will have better access to leadership opportunities including service on an advisory committee involving the PCHE and the Scholar House. As the program matures and new people are accepted, Walker said they can change the services they offer based on each cohort’s needs.

We like to think of people experiencing poverty as some indication of lack of character, wrong value system, but really it’s just a privilege of birth, what ZIP code you’re born in.

Diamonte Walker

While parents navigate academia, their children will also have resources and opportunities. The University of Pittsburgh’s Office of Childhood Development is working with the Pittsburgh Scholar House to develop school readiness and early literacy programs, according to Rhonda Hall, Pitt’s director of Family and Community Partnerships. 

Hall said her Pitt program plans on holding four or five workshops for the families that will focus on preparing the very young for school.

Walker said she intends the Pittsburgh Scholar House to be a way to push back against the disparities established in the 2019 gender equity report by Pitt researchers. According to the report, Black Pittsburgh residents, especially women, trailed behind their white counterparts in the realms of health, education and employment opportunities.

“Our bottom should look like the middle class right now. You should have safe housing, transportation, and children should have access to quality education,” Walker said. “All those things that allow people to thrive, that should be the floor, and we treat them like luxuries. They’re not. They’re fundamental rights.”

*PublicSource receives funding from the Heinz Endowments and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation.

Eric Jankiewicz is PublicSource’s economic development reporter and can be reached at ericj@publicsource.org or on Twitter @ericjankiewicz.

This story was fact-checked by Aavin Mangalmurti.

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Eric Jankiewicz

Eric Jankiewicz is a reporter focused on housing and economic development for PublicSource. A native New Yorker, Eric moved to Pittsburgh in 2017 and has since fallen in love with his adopted city, even...