KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Five years ago this month, a group of anonymous donors made a radical promise to Kalamazoo. They would pay for almost every high school graduate to go to a state-supported college or university.
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Changing Gears has been profiling towns across the region as they try to reinvent themselves for the new economy. (Our previous segments looked at Sandusky, Ohio and Kenosha, Wisconsin.) In some ways, the reinvention of Kalamazoo comes down to the chance one young woman got to reinvent herself.
It’s unusual for a promise to become a brand. But if you drive through the streets of downtown Kalamazoo, you’ll see banners lining the main drag. They boast: “Home of the Kalamazoo Promise.”
Tucked into a side street are the offices of the Kalamazoo Promise. As the executive administrator, Bob Jorth is a kind of quiet kingmaker. He spent a recent morning signing the certificates that tell high school seniors how much of their college the Promise will fund. The numbers were high: 95%, 95%, 70%, 100%, 100%, 100%, and on and on.
The earlier that children enroll in Kalamazoo public schools, the more money they get when they graduate. It’s an incentive to come to Kalamazoo and remain. Jorth says that so far, about 2,000 students have started college on the Promise.
Ashley Steele is one of them.
When news of the Promise first broke, Steele was just trying to get through her senior year at Kalamazoo Central High School. Her father died when she was little. For most of her childhood, her mom was incarcerated.
Steele vividly remembers the first time her mother was arrested. “It really impacted me,” she said. “I didn’t understand why the good guys were taking my mom away. Who was the best person I knew at eight.”
That experience inspired what Steele calls her “passion for the law.” But before the Kalamazoo Promise, she thought a two year degree was all she could afford. That would make it difficult to achieve her goal of becoming a juvenile probation officer.
Enrolling in four year college, Steele said, “wouldn’t have happened. There’s no way I would have wanted to take out that much loan. I would have spent the rest of my life paying it back. But with the Kalamazoo Promise, I don’t have to.”
Now Steele is a criminal justice major at Western Michigan University; she already has an associate’s degree.
Steele is representative of her peers from the first Promise class in one way. It will take her five years or more to get her bachelor’s degree. Of the nearly 350 Promise students who graduated high school in 2006, about 60 have earned BA’s so far. Promise officials say that number should rise.
Still, the Kalamazoo Promise can’t guarantee that students who make it to college are prepared to get through it. That’s where pressure on the Kalamazoo Public Schools comes in.
Michael Rice, the KPS superintendent, says the district has grown 20% since the Promise first made headlines, reversing years of declining enrollment.
Increasingly, it’s because families are staying put. “That’s a very, very powerful change within this community,” he said.
Rice points to another change – an aspirational one. In the last few years, the number of Kalamazoo students taking advanced placement courses has more than doubled. But Rice says the district hasn’t fully arrived. A third of kids here never graduate from high school.
Still, the Kalamazoo schools are where Ashley Steele wants to send her son. After she started college, she had a baby. Today, that baby is three – a friendly little boy named Richard with big brown eyes and a Spiderman obsession.
Steele sees Richard growing up differently than she did, because of the Kalamazoo Promise. She wants him to be proud of the fact that she continued her education.
“And I’m hoping that the Kalamazoo Promise will still be around when he gets ready to go to school,” she said.
The Kalamazoo Promise is supposed to continue in perpetuity. But not every community can boast anonymous benefactors with very deep pockets. That presents a challenge for cities around the country that want to replicate the Promise. It’s also something we’ll report on in our next story from Kalamazoo.