By Kate Davidson of Changing Gears
Five years ago this month, a group of anonymous donors made a radical promise to Kalamazoo, Michigan. They would pay for almost every public school graduate to go to a state-supported college or university. Our Changing Gears project has been profiling towns across the region as they try to reinvent themselves for the new economy. Here, they take a closer look at the "Kalamazoo Promise."
Five years ago this month, a group of anonymous donors made a radical promise to Kalamazoo, Michigan. They would pay for almost every public school graduate to go to a state-supported college or university. Our Changing Gears project has been profiling towns across the region as they try to reinvent themselves for the new economy. In some ways, the reinvention of Kalamazoo comes down to the chance one young woman got to reinvent herself.
It's an unusual thing for a promise to become a brand, but if you drive through the streets of downtown Kalamazoo, you'll see banners boasting: "Home of the Kalamazoo Promise."
Then, if you stop by the desk of Bob Jorth...
BOB JORTH: 95% , 95%, 100%, 70% ...
Jorth is the executive administrator of the Kalamazoo Promise. He's signing the certificates that tell current high school seniors how much of their college it will pay for.
BOB JORTH: 100%, 100%, 65% and 100%.
The earlier kids start in Kalamazoo public schools, the more money they get when they graduate.
That's how the college prospects of Ashley Steele changed overnight.
When news of the Promise first broke, Ashley was just trying to get through her senior year at Kalamazoo Central High. Her father had died when she was little, and for most of her childhood, her mom was in jail.
ASHLEY STEELE: I remember the first time she was arrested, and it really impacted me. I didn't understand why the good guys were taking my mom away, who was the best person I knew at, at eight.
At eighteen, Ashley Steele wanted to go to college, but all she could plan on was enough funding for a two year degree. That was going to make it hard to become a juvenile probation officer; a desire that came from watching her mom.
ASHLEY STEELE: It was important to me that I understand the experiences that she went through. And the only positive way of doing that is to learn the law.
Now, Ashley Steele is a criminal justice major at Western Michigan University. She got her associate's degree first, and she says that without the Promise, she wouldn't have continued.
ASHLEY STEELE: Wouldn't have happened. You know, there's no way I could have, you know, I would have wanted to take out that much loan. I would have spent the rest of my life paying it back, and that's not something that I wanted to do. But with the Kalamazoo Promise, I don't have to.
The security to study what you really want to study is one of the intangible effects of the Kalamazoo Promise. So is all the national attention the program has generated. A lot changed with that announcement in November 2005.
MICHAEL RICE: Ten months later, the next school year begins, September 06, we jump by just under a thousand kids.
Michael Rice is superintendent of the Kalamazoo Public Schools. He says the district has grown by more than 20% since the Promise, reversing years of declining enrollment. Increasingly, it's because families aren't pulling their kids out the way they used to.
MICHAEL RICE: We're getting people in Kalamazoo who are saying, you know what? We're now trusting KPS to educate our children into middle school, or into high school. That's a very, very powerful change within this community.
The superintendent 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 Michael Rice says the district hasn't fully arrived. He says a third of kids here never graduate from high school.
RICHARD PEAKE: I'm a big boy. Sniiiffff....
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...
RICHARD PEAKE: Three.
And his name is...
RICHARD PEAKE: Richard.
Ashley says that she sees Richard growing up differently than she did, because of the Kalamazoo Promise.
ASHLEY STEELE: I wanted him to be proud of the fact that I did go back to school and I did do it with him, and see that as something that he wanted to do. And I'm hoping that the Kalamazoo promise will still be around when he gets ready to go to school.
The Kalamazoo Promise is supposed to continue in perpetuity. But not every community can boast anonymous benefactors with very deep pockets. And that's a challenge for cities and towns that want to replicate the Promise. It's also something we'll report on in our next story from Kalamazoo.
Changing Gears is a public media collaboration between WBEZ, Michigan Radio and Ideastream in Cleveland.
Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.