A group of African-American teens from Iowa are on their way to college – with scholarships – thanks to hard work and a promise.

Ten years ago, a couple challenged 17 second-grade boys to graduate from high school and promised them two-year college scholarships.

The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier reports that most of the boys kept their side of the bargain and are headed to college. Ten of them are graduating on time, and the others are not far behind.

According to The Courier, Waterloo, Iowa couple Dennis Harbaugh and Juanita Williams were concerned about the high dropout rate and low academic achievement of African-American students in Waterloo.

The promise came in 2006 when the boys were attending Dr. Walter Cunningham School for Excellence, located in the center of the city’s Black community. The students were enrolled in a pilot program with a mission to close the racial achievement gap. In the previous year, only one out of three Black male students graduated high school.

Harbaugh explained the couple’s motivation to The Courier:

“There’s no way to have a strong community when you have a subgroup of the community that’s not graduating from high school. That’s just not going to work.”

The newspaper said they created the Harbaugh-Williams Education Promise Fund by mortgaging an apartment building they owned and built the fund through donations. By 2014, the couple reached their goal: $333,000. Each student will receive up to $8,000 a year.

Some of boys, if they succeeded, would be the first in their family to earn a high school diploma. So, beyond money, The Courier said the couple became personally involved, building relationships with the students and their parents, while forming a support network for them.

Several of the teens spoke with the paper about overcoming academic and personal challenges to cross the finish line.

Samonti Tooson said he fought a long battle with math and won – passing geometry in his last semester to graduate on time. He said a part of his determination to succeed stemmed from not wanting to disappoint all of those who invested their time and money in his future:

“Basically, it was disrespect if I didn’t … to myself, to Dennis and Juanita, and the supporters,” he said. “I feel like they reached out as much as they could and the rest is up to us.”

Another student, DeQuann Washington, told The Courier that the Promise Fund changed the direction of his life. As a young man, he’s now beginning to understand the opportunity the scholarship created:

“When I was little, I didn’t know what a scholarship was. They said ‘You lucky. You blessed.’ Now I know what they meant.”

Two of the boys made mistakes along the way. They’re currently incarcerated, but working on earning a high school diploma. A third one dropped out of school, but Harbaugh told The Courier that he continues to believe they too will manage to succeed.

SOURCE: Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier | PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, Twitter

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