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El Molino High School senior Jake Petersen wants to study vineyard management and fire science at Santa Rosa Junior College next fall, but how to pay for it is a piece of the puzzle he hasn't completely figured out.

His calculations are getting easier with the return of the Doyle Scholarship, the award that for six decades helped nearly 120,000 students pay for their stints at Santa Rosa Junior College.

The venerable program was suspended in 2008 when Santa Rosa-based Exchange Bank was crippled in the national financial crisis and stopped paying dividends, the engine that had funded the scholarships since 1948.

"It's perfect for me, one less thing to worry about," Petersen said of the news that he qualifies for the relaunched program. "It will definitely put a big dent in the expenses for books and whatnot, so it will definitely help."

While the news of the Doyle's return is being hailed as a sign of a recovering economy and a boon for scores of incoming college students, the scholarship is a shadow of its former self.

The 25-cents-per-share quarterly dividend now being paid will provide about $850,000 a year to Exchange Bank's largest shareholder, the Frank P. Doyle and Polly O'Meara Doyle Trust, which funds the Doyle Scholarship.

That is significantly less than the $5.3 million Santa Rosa Junior College received from the trust in 2007, the last year of full dividends when the bank paid a total of $6.10 per share in dividends over four quarters, including a bonus.

"The situation is dramatically improved from where it was four or five years ago, but it still isn't all that we want it to be or all that we aspire to be," Exchange Bank President Bill Schrader said.

Schrader declined to say whether the Doyle Scholarship will ever return to its heyday when annual, renewable awards of $1,000 to $1,800 were given to applicants with a 2.5 grade point average or better.

Grants now will be $500 and be limited to 2013 high school graduates who earned a cumulative 3.0 grade point average. Preference will be given to students who attended high school within the Santa Rosa Junior College's district boundaries -- essentially Sonoma County -- and those who show financial need.

Scholarships will be for one year only and are not renewable. They are not available to current junior college students.

"The scholarship committee recommended the 3.0 because the distribution is so much smaller that we couldn't possibly meet the need" if the pool of qualifying applicants included those with grade point averages as low as 2.5, said Rachael Cutcher, manager of the campus scholarship program.

In Petersen's graduating class at El Molino, 67 students are eligible for the Doyle under the new 3.0 grade point average threshold. Had the requirement remained at a 2.5 grade point average, an additional 40 students would have been eligible.

Cutcher said the plan is to regrow the program but that "it's going to take awhile."

"As we rebuild the program, it's going to be done in a very thoughtful manner so we really make the biggest impact," she said.

Since its inception, the Doyle has provided $76 million in scholarships.

"To see it come back and to know how deeply we feel about this bank and how deeply we feel about this community, it was a powerful sense of satisfaction," Schrader said. "There is still more work but we have come a long way."

"It's a very personal, intimate relationship that we at the bank have with the JC," he said.

High school counselors said news of scholarship's return was been a lift amid otherwise bleak education budget news in recent years.

"It would be nice if we can expand it once again to those students at 2.5 GPA but it helps and encourages those students to get to school. It's a good starting point," said Lori Chamberlin, counselor at Elsie Allen High School where about 60 percent of the class of 2013 is expected to attend SRJC.

Even in reduced form, the Doyle can be a significant boon for many students, Chamberlin said.

"Five hundred dollars is a lot," she said. "With books and everything -- textbooks are where it costs a lot -- if they are smart, they can stretch it for the year."

Diana Rudesill, college and career coordinator at Windsor High School, said the heightened academic expectations for recipients sends a good message to high school students.

"We like the 3.0 GPA requirement. It encourages you to have positive academic habits now," she said.

"There is certainly a buzz about it. Students are excited, especially those who had older siblings who weren't able to access it," she said.

That includes Windsor High senior Josefina Olvera, whose sister currently attends San Jose State University.

"I think it would help a lot," she said of her qualifying for the Doyle. "Especially for my parents, they have to pay for me and my sister in college."

The return of the Doyle -- even in a lesser form -- instantly returns to it the mantle of being the biggest scholarship program on the SRJC campus, Cutcher said.

Second to the Doyle is an anonymous donor who has given the Santa Rosa Junior College Foundation $6 million in the past year to fund an endowment that is expected to generate $175,000 annually for scholarships.

"It's important to reward students for good scholarship. We really encourage our top students to start here at SRJC," Cutcher said. "Having a scholarship, whether it's $500 or $1,500, it shows that we believe in them."

Longtime El Molino High School counselor Doug Pepe agreed. "For some students, it's the difference between being able to attend there and not," he said. "In terms of community building, it's an awesome thing, too."

"For someone, maybe not the top student, they get a Doyle Scholarship, it's huge for them. It's important," he said.

Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.

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