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HELENA – A nonprofit group that offers financial help to children attending private schools said Friday it handed out nearly $1 million in scholarships to 520 Montana children during its first year of operation in the state.

And ACE Scholarships Montana said it hopes to increase its grants for the 2013-14 school year.

Jonathan Tee, chief of operations for ACE Scholarships in Denver, said the Montana branch of the group hopes to raise enough money to finance grants for 600 kids from low- and moderate-income families. ACE Scholarships started operating in Montana last year with the help of a $4.6 million investment from Greg and Susan Gianforte of Bozeman.

Greg Gianforte is the founder and former CEO of RightNow Technologies, a Bozeman software firm that was sold to Oracle Corp. in 2012 for $1.8 billion. He’s also chairman of the board of Petra Academy, a private Christian school in Bozeman.

Tee said the 520 scholarships that ACE granted this school year in Montana averaged about $2,000 per student. ACE grants pay up to half the tuition cost for students; the families are asked to come up with at least part of the cost of sending their kids to private school.

“What we find is that the ACE scholarship really provides the leverage that the families need so they can work with the schools to develop a payment plan,” Tee said.

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Families eligible for ACE scholarships can earn up to 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or about $43,600 for a family of four. The ACE program gave grants to children attending 47 private schools in Montana. All but a handful of the schools are sectarian, affiliated with a church or religion. ACE said it also is helping support private schools that offer tuition-free education to Native American children in Montana. It gave $20,000 to the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, near the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation, to help with costs of a school dormitory.

“We can’t provide scholarships, since they have no tuition, so we asked what we could do to help their school to improve academics or increase accessibility to the school,” Tee said.

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