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Promise Keeping in Kalamazoo

In Kalamazoo, Mich. Monday, President Obama had a welcome respite from battling oil slicks, delivering on a promise to speak at the high school that put its best “Race to the Top” foot forward on why they deserved the honor.

Kalamazoo’s Central High School was picked, in large part, because it is a symbol of a community getting its act together and harnessing its resources, financial and human, to organize around higher education attainment as an economic development strategy. 

The Kalamazoo Promise, created in 2005 and funded by anonymous donors, guarantees tuition at any public Michigan university or community college for any student graduating from the Kalamazoo School System. To date the Promise has succeeded in motivating students—helped by persevering families and engaged teachers—to pursue postsecondary education at greater rates.

Perhaps even more significantly, the Promise has reversed long-term trends of out-migration from urban school systems by middle class families common to most urban districts. Property values in Kalamazoo have been rising, new families moving in to take advantage of the Promise. And Kalamazoo has established its reputation as a community very serious about being an education center of gravity. This has put wind behind the sails of local economic development efforts to diversity their auto parts economy and keep as entrepreneurs the top talent laid off following the massive plant closings after Pfizer subsumed the local Upjohn Corporation.

The success of the Promise in a lunch-bucket town like Kalamazoo, heretofore known for its mellifluous name (handy for song lyrics), and the occasional Elvis sighting at the local Burger King, has led communities across the country to try to replicate its success.

Next week, the third annual PromiseNet Conference, organized by the original Kalamazoo Promise sponsors in their home city, will bring together dozens of community leaders from around the country, from rebounding big cities like Pittsburgh to smaller towns like Newton, Iowa (where Maytag pulled out several years ago), who are looking to imitate its magic. Every community has resources, and many in the Midwest and its former manufacturing centers have deep pocket foundations fueled by the massive wealth created by industrial titans, like the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek just down the road, that have put millions over the years into trying to “fix” urban schools.

But as Janice Brown, former Kalamazoo School Superintendent and one of the architects of the Promise and instigator of the PromiseNet Conference, will quickly tell you, the financial guarantee of a free college education is not, by itself, enough to keep kids engaged and to the finish line. College guarantee programs have been launched and flopped with great fanfare before. Rather a community wide support system, in-school and alongside of it, must be in place to pick students up when they fall down or get discouraged, and make sure they are thrown, by hook or by crook, over the education finish line.

The president’s words in Kalamazoo included placing responsibility squarely on each student to chart their path to success. But a community organized to ensure it, as Kalamazoo is, shows what can be done without massive federal aid or government programs. A welcome beacon in tough times.