Former Family Dollar CEO Howard Levine is bankrolling the first charitable effort to roll out in response to the week of violent protests that rocked Charlotte back in September.
The Howard and Julie Levine Opportunity Scholars Program is a joint effort with Central Piedmont Community College to provide full two-year scholarships plus expenses to low-income minority teens whose families have been mired in poverty for generations.
The $520,000 gift to the school is enough to cover the first 45 students, a number CPCC expects to grow as more donors step forward.
Levine hopes this is the first in a series of philanthropic efforts born of the turmoil that engulfed uptown after a Charlotte-Mecklenburg police officer killed Keith Lamont Scott on Sept. 20. Protesters filled the streets of uptown a night later. Many were peaceful, but some turned riotous, vandalizing and looting two dozen uptown sites. Charlotte’s poor track record of economic mobility has been cited as a key reason for the violence.
“I was shocked to see how far it went,” said Levine, noting he was dismayed at the violence and vandalism.
“It made me realize that there are challenges here that we have to deal with. I almost immediately began trying to think of how I could help right at that moment. We need to give people hope. I think a lot of people are thinking the same thing, but it’s hard to know what to do.”
Not reinventing the wheel
The solution came 10 days after the protests erupted, when CPCC President Tony Zeiss made a proposal: scholarships for ambitious graduates from local high schools with the highest poverty rates and lowest college attendance rates – Garinger, Harding, Vance, West Charlotte and West Mecklenburg.
Better still, Levine says, the initiative will start quickly, with the first scholarship winners starting classes next summer.
“I loved the idea, because we are not creating something new or re-inventing the wheel. It’s something we can do right now,” said Levine.
Charlotte’s philanthropic community has struggled with a response to violent protests that followed Scott’s fatal shooting. Wells Fargo and Duke Energy stepped up days after the protests turned violent with donations of a combined $350,000 to a United Way fund focused on “community healing, rebuilding trust and creating opportunities.”
However, that fund is still designing a process for dispersing money, including an advisory board. Another protest-inspired effort, ONE Charlotte, is also in the formative stage, with no timeline set for launching initiatives in education, employment, justice and health care.
Meanwhile, Charlotte city leaders are debating tactics to confront the community’s lack of affordable housing (a 35 percent jump in rents over five years), but experts say it could take years to build the thousands of units needed to house the city’s poor.
A quicker response to deal with rising rents could be an increase in the minimum wage in Charlotte, say experts. But the state General Assembly took that option off the table when it passed the controversial House Bill 2. One of HB2’s provisions upholds a ban on municipalities enacting their own minimum wage level.
“Is the cost of living in Charlotte the same as the cost of living in smaller towns?” asks Charlotte City Council member John Autry. “I would say not, but HB2 prevents us from doing anything about it.”
Change, maybe save a life
The Howard and Julie Levine scholarships are going into effect almost immediately, with CPCC officials already working with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools on finding the best three candidates from each of Charlotte’s five Title I high-poverty high schools.
The first 15 scholarship winners begin in the summer of 2017, with money enough for a two-year “job focused” degree, as well as money for books and fees. Only minorities from Mecklenburg County’s five high-poverty schools will be accepted, specifically those students with at least a 2.0 GPA and no history of discipline problems.
Each is to be assigned an academic coach to keep them on track until they have jobs. And they will be qualified for grants to cover living expenses and transportation while enrolled in the program.
CPCC officials note the initiative’s key to success hinges on the Summer Bridge Program, a six-week summer school for high school graduates who need help in math and reading. It dates back to 1995 and has a track record of bringing 90 percent of its students up to college level in time for fall classes.
Tony Zeiss says he reached out to Levine knowing the philanthropist had a track record of helping low-income people. Earlier this year, Levine gave $1 million to help build a development center for at-risk children on land that was once home to the Boulevard Homes housing project.
The $15 million center – to be named the Howard Levine Child Development Center – is considered the lynchpin of a $90 million Renaissance revitalization plan for the 41acres of housing that once had a crime rate five times the city average.
Zeiss says Levine is the first person he called about the scholarship idea, because in 2012 the philanthropist donated $500,000 to provide scholarships and an on-campus center for veterans. Word has already spread that Levine has done it again, and more donors are already negotiating with the school to sponsor more students. The average cost per student is about $10,000 for two years, Zeiss said.
“That’s $10,000 to change a life and maybe save a life,” said Zeiss. “What we’re hoping is that the Howard Levine name on this program will set an example for others to follow.”