GREENSBORO — Guilford County is $5 million closer to meeting initial fundraising goals to be a Say Yes to Education community, thanks to a pledged donation from the Phillips Foundation.

The pledge, announced Monday, would be the largest donation the philanthropic Phillips Foundation has made to date. It is also the largest major financial commitment going toward local efforts to partner with Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit organization based in New York City.

Groups pushing for the partnership set an initial fundraising goal of $28 million, which is one of the steps that have to be met to be a Say Yes community.

If Greensboro is chosen by Say Yes, the effect would be epic: college scholarships for students graduating from Guilford County Schools.

Elizabeth Phillips, executive director of the Phillips Foundation, said the initiative “is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Guilford County.”

Say Yes to Education focuses on deterring high school dropouts and increasing a student’s access to college. For now, the organization’s efforts are focused on partnership communities in New York state and Philadelphia.

However, the organization is looking to expand outside of the northeastern United States. Enter Greensboro, which is the lead contender to be the next Say Yes community.

Guilford County Schools and the Guilford Education Alliance, along with the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro and the Community Foundation of High Point, are working on securing the partnership. They expect to announce other donations in the coming weeks.

The goal is to launch the partnership this fall if Say Yes chooses Guilford County.

The Phillips Foundation’s announcement drew prolonged applause from some in the crowd Monday morning at the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro.

The Greensboro-based organization also is committed to causes ranging from homelessness to the arts to economic development.

“It’s huge that the largest gift they’ve made is focused on our students and families who are in the public education system,” said Winston McGregor, executive director of the Guilford Education Alliance.

The Say Yes scholarships would go toward tuition to North Carolina public colleges and universities or one of more than 70 other private colleges, including Duke University and Davidson College.

Those scholarships would help close the gap between a student’s tuition costs and their other scholarships and grants.

The scholarships would be available to all students graduating from Guilford County Schools, regardless of income, starting with the Class of 2016.

The partnership with Say Yes also would help with other non-academic needs that could be barriers to a child’s success in school, such as health care and legal services.

Almost 60 percent of students in Guilford County Schools qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, which is a federal poverty indicator.

“If you’re struggling, about to be evicted, how can your child be home learning?” asked Mildred Poole, a community volunteer.

Poole said her mouth almost fell open when she heard of the foundation’s donation.

“I did not know that we had been able to receive such a gift,” she said. “It says a lot to the community, and I know they’re going to step up and do their part.”

Others pushing for the partnership describe it as a long-term investment and a game changer.

“This initiative is transformative in what it can do for our children and what it can do for our community,” said Alan Duncan, chairman of the Guilford County Board of Education.

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Contact Marquita Brown at (336) 373-7002, and follow @mbrownNR on Twitter.

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