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Teacher seeks to help Perry grad with college financial problems

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette logo Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 11/1/2017 By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Pittsburgh Perry High School English teacher Jason Boll. © Lake Fong/Post-Gazette Pittsburgh Perry High School English teacher Jason Boll.

Jason Boll was never happier to help a student apply to college than he was to help Kevonna Stevens. She’d graduated at the top of her class at Perry High School in the spring, and she was applying to his alma mater, Temple University.

Now, he's trying to help her stay there

The problem isn't her grades. In October, Ms. Stevens — the first in her family to attend college — texted him that she'd earned A's and B's. But when he told her how proud he was of her, she wrote back: “Thanks boll but I have some news. I might not be able to stay due to financial reasons.”

It left Mr. Boll scrambling for answers for a student who, at only 18, had a life marked by more than her share of hardships. With her blessing, he started a GoFundMe page that collected more than $6,000 for her schooling, nearing the $7,500 campaign goal in a little more than a week.

“I thought, there's no way that this is the end of the story,” he said in an interview. “She really is an amazing person who has worked really hard and deserves some breaks.”

Growing up, ​Ms. Stevens lived in Las Vegas, North Carolina and New York City before settling in Pittsburgh her freshman year. Her parents and her four kid siblings lived with her grandmother before moving to an apartment in Spring Hill. When her parents split up, her dad moved across the country, and her family found a home in Northview Heights.

Partway through her junior year, the house burned down. They moved again, this time to Homewood.

“She barely blinked,” Mr. Boll wrote on the fundraiser page. “She would get on a bus for an hour each day, traverse the city in time to arrive at Perry by 7:11 for first period. She kept smiling, kept being a good friend to her classmates, and kept getting good grades.”

Fearing she would be uprooted once again to Westinghouse 6-12, Ms. Stevens didn't give the school district her new address. She worked part-time almost every day at the Burger King in Avalon to pay for the bus fare to Perry, where she immersed herself in school. 

The college application process was daunting, but a visit to Temple proved to be a bright spot. She loved Philadelphia's diversity, and the campus “just seemed like the place for me.” Once accepted, she selected a major in business management with a minor in psychology.

The financial problems began when she and her mother erred in arranging housing. A mix of grants, student loans and scholarships — including the Pittsburgh Promise — helped pay for school, but Ms. Stevens mistakenly thought housing was included in the cost of her tuition. She was late to sign up and got a spot in a dorm just two weeks before school started. She learned the bad news later: The housing cost left her $3,500 short and unable to sign up for spring classes until she paid.

“My mom said, ‘I don't know what to do. I didn't go through this.’”

She texted Mr. Boll: “I can't take out any [personal] loans without a worthy co-signer and no one in my family has good credit so I've been getting denied for loans.”

In a statement, a Temple spokesman said the school can't discuss an individual student’s financial situation, but that it’s “committed to its mission of expanding access to an affordable, world-class education for talented students of all backgrounds. We work with students to provide information about all sources of financial aid and support them throughout the process. Our goal is to make sure students get a great education and leave with as little debt as possible.”

“I wish I could cut a check for $7,000 and help Kevonna figure out her scholarships for next year,” Mr. Boll wrote on the fundraiser page. “She is that kind of person. She will not fail. I'm confident of that. In fact, she has overcome harder things than tuition bills. She will find a way to overcome this.”

As of late Tuesday, the campaign was only $1,425 short of its goal to pay for Ms. Stevens’ entire school year.

Mr. Boll, who taught in the Wilkinsburg School District before coming to Perry three years ago, was wary of being viewed as Ms. Stevens' “white savior,” and he was quick to point out that other teachers have made similar gestures, including a Perry chemistry teacher he said helped a recent graduate struggling in college.  Another Perry teacher, Derek Long, shared the fundraiser on Facebook, asking those wishing to gift him a birthday present to donate instead. 

The outpouring has left Ms. Stevens herself  feeling “very grateful and blessed.”

“It was amazing to see everyone coming together for someone they barely know.”

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.

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