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Kalamazoo (Mich.) Public Schools

Kalamazoo (Mich.) Public Schools

Affordable College for All

KALAMAZOO (MICH.) HIGH School graduates have promise literally. If they attend a state college or university, they are promised free or reduced tuition thanks to anonymous donors who have created a program now inspiring similar efforts across the country.

The Kalamazoo Promise, which began in November 2005, is a multimillion-dollar effort designed to improve local education and the economy and has already begun to revitalize this Rust Belt city of 77,000. The program "is forcing people to ask the question 'If it works in Kalamazoo, why can't it work for us?'" says Bob Jorth, the executive administrator of the Promise. "So, it's really spurring economic development and making communities think differently about how they're using their resources to invest in K14 and K16 education."

A Promise Is Born

The idea for the Promise came out of informal discussions four years ago among a handful of community people, including school superintendent Janice Brown, who says she had long considered the idea of paying for college education. This group sought a way to reinvest in the struggling city in order to keep people in the community, draw new people into the community, and help Kalamazoo to thrive again. The talks kept returning to education, says Brown, and a decision was clear. "We eventually came to this decision to invest in our children," she says. The Promise's donors have created an endowment that is estimated at $200 million to $250 million. The donors want to remain unknown to keep the emphasis on the gift and how the community can leverage it.

Leveling the Playing Field

The scholarship provides every graduate from one of Kalamazoo's three high schools with a tuition-free postsecondary education as long as they attend a public Michigan college or university, or enroll at a state community college for a certificate or degree program in a trade. To qualify, a family must live in Kalamazoo and a student must be enrolled in a district school for four years or more. The scholarship works on a sliding scale: The longer a student is enrolled in the district, the higher the percentage of college tuition aid he or she will receive. For example, a student who has attended from ninth grade receives 65 percent, while a child who has attended since kindergarten receives 100 percent.

Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA and take at least 12 credits per semester while in college. The plan, says Jorth, is to encourage the school system's disadvantaged children to attend college. "To get a lot of these kids to finish high school is a big step. The motivation for higher grades is really about where they want to go to college. Kids are upping the ante on where they want to go to school," says Jorth. For example, applications to Michigan State University from Kalamazoo students have steadily increased since the Promise was announced.

The Power of the Promise

Since the program began, the economic and academic impact has been quick and impressive. School enrollment has risen nearly 10 percent from 2005-2006 to 2006-2007, with some new students and their families coming to Kalamazoo from as far as Hawaii, Washington and Russia.

The surge in enrollment-reversing a long-time decline-has resulted in about 40 new teaching positions. It has alsomeant more state funding for the district. Kalamazoo schools receive $7,500 per student from the state, so the nearly 10 percent increase in enrollment will yield about $7 million more in school revenue this school year. "It's just done remarkable things for the morale of everyone in the schools," Jorth says of the program's impact thus far.

Property values and housing construction are also on a rise. More importantly, the city's residents and business community have bought in to the Promise's altruism. Last May voters resoundingly approved an $85 million bond to build a new middle school and elementary school, the first such buildings to be constructed in more than 30 years. "There is a spirit of giving in Kalamazoo that will allow us to make a difference in many people's lives," says Brown. Michigan Governor Jennifer M. Granholm has proposed a similar program, the Michigan Promise, which will award $4,000 to every Michigan high school graduate enrolling in a state college or university. And the small resort area of Northport, Mich., has created a similar Promise program of its own. Superintendent Brown and Jorth note that long term results will really show how well the Promise is working. The district has a contract with the W. E. Upjohn Institute to chart the Kalamazoo Promise's long term impact.

Opening Up Opportunities

Rudolph Myles Jr. certainly sees the positive long-term impact that the Promise can have for his four children, ages 15, 13, 10, and 6. "With four kids and what we earn, we only considered junior college .Now we can look at a four-year school. We have more possibilities," says Myles, who works at Kalamazoo Central High School as a security guard and a basketball and football coach. His wife, Robynne, runs a part-time day care center out of their home and is a substitute teacher for the school system. Their son Javon, a tenth grader, is considering Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Michigan State universities. "First I was working hard at my sports to hopefully get an athletic scholarship, but now I can really focus a lot on my studies," says Javon.

A Catalyst for Change

The Kalamazoo Promise has ignited similar efforts around the country. Tuition free programs have been started in Garrett County, Md., and communities in Tennessee, Iowa, Alabama and Virginia. In January, the El Dorado (Ark.) School District was promised $50 million over 20 years by a local oil company to fund a program very similar to the Kalamazoo Promise. Superintendent Brown believes these efforts can work if the communities have the will to make them work. "The Kalamazoo Promise is about will," she says. The scholarship program's success also involves a district's investment in its students. Says Brown: "I don't believe we would have received the alamazoo Promise if we were not already working hard for several years before the Promise to reengage our students and address some of the issues we have in the public schools.That has to happen first for it to work.

" The ultimate measure, however, which won't be realized for several years, is whether the children who benefit from the Promise return to Kalamazoo to raise their families and work in the community. "We want the city that educates their children, provides free tuition to college, and has their children return when they're older to raise their families here," says Superintendent Brown. "We want Kalamazoo to be the place where people want to come."

Lucille Renwick is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.