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Jake Penwell with his wife, Amy.

Jake Penwell embraces the idea that once you provide a child with an education, that benefit can never be taken away.

Penwell is the state director for ACE Scholarships. The non-profit organization provides partial scholarships to students from low-income families who are interested in attending private school.

“Our theory is that every child deserves the educational model that best suits them,” Penwell said. “If you’re in a public school, maybe that way of learning doesn’t suit your learning style. If you’re poor, you don’t have the ability to choose something different. And if you’re poor, you might not have the ability to move to a different district, where maybe the school is run a little differently.”

This year, the organization awarded scholarships to 750 students in kindergarten through 12th grades throughout Montana. Each scholarship averaged about $2,000, and paid for up to 50 percent of each child’s tuition, Penwell said.

Despite handing out 750 scholarships this year, ACE had a waiting list with more than 800 names on it, Penwell said.

He is also working on an effort to expand ACE Scholarships into Wyoming.

ACE Scholarships is funded entirely through private donations. Penwell said donors to the scholarship fund are often interested in making the best use of their donations.

“It falls back to the theory where people ask, ‘What’s the lowest common denominator where I can help?’ And most of the time that’s education,” he said. 

Some ACE recipients choose to attend religious-affiliated schools such as Billings Central or Billings Christian School. Others choose non-religious schools such as Missoula International School, which emphasizes bilingual education, Penwell said.

“The kids are doing fantastic in these schools,” Penwell said, noting that 93 percent of ACE Scholarship recipients graduate from high school, and 77 percent go on to attend college.

Penwell said ACE Scholarships was not intended to compete with public schools. It’s simply a way to provide a way for children from low-income families to have the same opportunities as families that can afford to pay for private school, he said.

What’s the biggest challenge you face in your job? The toughest part of this job is helping the public to understand what school choice is (and at times what it is NOT) and what choice can contribute to education as a whole. Each child is different (any parent with more than one child will most likely admit to this), this is the same with learning styles and education. There is not a single system that can educate all kids equally. 

What’s the best business advice you have received? Plan your work and then work your plan. You need to have a plan (or a goal) in life or else you will end up going with the flow. 

Who gave you that advice? My Great Uncle Jerry Burtner

Here’s what I’d like to do to improve my community: I would like provide the educational opportunities for low-income kids to have the same options that kids from higher income families have. It is unfortunate that a large portion of kids every year, who are so frustrated with school that they decide to dropout, are from low-income families. Low income does NOT mean low potential! ACE Scholarships has proven this year after year.

Which living person do you most admire? I believe that our lives are built upon a foundation that is created while we are young.  I want to thank my Mom, Jill Young, for being such an incredible influence in my life and guiding me to become the person I am today.

Aside from profit and loss, how do you measure success in your job? Profit and loss is a financial measure, not a measure of success. Success should be evaluated on what you do with your finances. I love to help those who have a tough time helping themselves. 

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Convincing my beautiful wife to marry me! She is my rock and I have no doubt that I wouldn’t be the same person without her.

I’m happiest when I’m… with my family. My wife and kids are the well source of my joy. When I am having a tough day, I love to go pick up one of my kids from school and take them to the park or call my wife for an impromptu lunch date. It always pulls me out of my funk.

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