The Kalamazoo Promise

Last month, I had the opportunity to travel to Kalamazoo, MI, a city of approximately 75,000 with a declining population. My trip included a visit to the Kalamazoo Public Schools (KPS) district office to meet with Superintendent Janice Brown. First, we talked about the Kalamazoo Public Schools — a K-12 district that serves more than 10,500 students in two high schools, three middle schools, 16 elementary schools and nine magnet schools. Then, we talked about“The Kalamazoo Promise.” Those of you who know me seldom, if ever, find me at a loss for words, but all I could say when I left her office was WOW!

The Kalamazoo Promise is an unprecedented opportunity that has been made available to KPS students because of far-sighted and generous donors who whole-heartedly believe in Kalamazoo Public Schools and the community. The intent of the program is to provide each and every Kalamazoo Public School graduate with the opportunity to receive a tuition-free post-secondary education (maximum four-years) at any public college or university in Michigan, including certification or degree programs in the trades at state supported community colleges. To receive a 100-percent scholarship, a student must be enrolled in KPS since kindergarten, and their parents must live in the district. But no one is forgotten. A partial scholarship of at least 65 percent will be given to all students who graduate from KPS and have been KPS students for four years (continuous) or more. The Promise was announced at a Board of Education meeting on Nov. 10, 2005, by Superintendent Brown, where she got the opportunity to tell the KPS families that“their students’ post-secondary education was covered.” The Promise started with the graduating class of 2006. Of the 550 that will graduate this year, 425 are potential scholars.

The scholarship fund was established by a group of anonymous donors as a means to promote economic development in the area. Superintendent Brown would not say whether the donors are local residents or provide other information, other than to assure us that the group has the financial resources to make the multimillion-dollar commitment indefinitely. Benefits for the school district include a likely turn-around in the decreasing enrollment seen during the last 30 years. For the city and other communities, such as Kalamazoo and Oshtemo townships that form the school district, it means a likely boost in their tax bases as families move into the district and home prices rise. For the region, The Kalamazoo Promise will result in a better-educated work force and provide a powerful incentive for businesses to locate in the area.

Parent and community reaction was joy and amazement. It meant hope, opportunity and a leveling of the playing field. Kids entering school next year would be provided with T-shirts that say Kalamazoo Public Schools on the front and The Kalamazoo Promise Starts Here on the back. But this heartwarming and brilliant initiative does not stop here. As Brown says, “It has become everybody’s responsibility.” Four offshoot groups have already been formed: an education group to figure out how to take the Promise model and make it regional; a research group to study the results on economic development; a support group that includes community, ministerial alliances and social services for kids; and a city/county/regional inter-governmental group to assist with the multi-jurisdictions within the school district.

Better yet, is the fact that the giving has not stopped here. Within days of the Promise being made, Western Michigan University (WMU), a student-centered research university located in Kalamazoo, stepped forward guaranteeing four years room and board for the Kalamazoo graduating class of 2006 who attend WMU through the Kalamazoo Promise program. This adds up to another $8,000 per student per year.

What an incentive for the kids — go to school, graduate and get a four-year scholarship. What an incentive for community development — an educated workforce, new business development, increased property values and a better quality of life. All I can say is kudos to Kalamazoo!

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