Thursday, June 10, 2010

The Kalamazoo Promise: How did Obama miss this?

[I’m] here tonight because I think that America has a lot to learn from Kalamazoo Central about what makes for a successful school in this new century.  (Applause.)  You’ve got educators raising standards and then inspiring their students to meet them.  You’ve got community members who are stepping up as tutors and mentors and coaches.  You got parents who are taking an active interest in their child’s education -- attending those teacher conferences, yes, turning off the TV once in a while, making sure homework gets done.
President Obama, Kalamazoo Central High Commencement Speech, June 7, 2010

Kalamazoo, Michigan is currently home to an unprecedented experiment in economic development. Announced in November 2005, the Kalamazoo Promise guarantees full college scholarships to potentially every graduate of the Kalamazoo Public School district. Behind the scholarship program is an economic development agenda that seeks to revitalize the city and the region through a substantial investment in public education. It is an unorthodox approach and one that is drawing attention throughout the United States. If the return on investment in human and economic terms is high enough, the Kalamazoo Promise could serve as a new model for community revitalization and change the way policymakers think about K-16 education.
Upjohn Institute:  Research related to the Kalamazoo Promise


Something amazing is going on in the Kalamazoo (MI) public schools. Every student who graduates from their schools is eligible to receive a fully or partially paid scholarship to a Michigan public university or community college of their choice. The scholarships aren't based on need, or on highest grade point average, or on ethnic background, or religious persuasion, or on fantastic essays, or on how many clubs they joined throughout their school years.  It's based on location, length of time in the schools, and a minimum 2.0 GPA.  Every child within the Kalamazoo School District boundaries is potentially eligible to receive some help for secondary education.  No strings attached.

The donors for this project insist on anonymity, and I find that refreshingly admirable--I do--but if, after reading about this program, there's one instance where curiosity is nearly killing the cat, this is it.  Who is paying for this? Is it the Upjohn Institute, disseminators of the Kalamazoo Promise information?  Is it Western Michigan University, the evaluators of the project?  Is it the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, which, according to the Upjohn info, is funding an initiative called Investing in the Success of the Kalamazoo Promise, "to strengthen the outcomes of the scholarship program by investing in its evaluation and research infrastructure, and deepen community engagement"?  Or is it all of the above, plus a whole lot of other "nice people"?  (The most Upjohn will say about the donors.)

As the self-designated Protector of All Education Public and Free, I'm necessarily suspicious of private interests sticking their noses into our schools.  (One look at the Texas textbook miasma is enough to prove my point.) Their agendas are usually highly suspect, falling in line with their time-honored principal of Total Destruction of Public Education, that Dirty Communist/Socialist Plot to Capture and Brainwash our Precious Commodities.  

So I've looked pretty carefully at the Kalamazoo Promise, and if there is an agenda other than giving their kids a chance at success which may then come back to the community ten-fold,  I can't find it.  I have to admit, it's pretty amazing.

The project is so amazing, in fact, it came to the attention of the White House and the Department of Education as they looked for the one high school in the country where President Obama would be delivering his first high school commencement address.  High School seniors from all over the country were invited to write essays and send in videos presenting their case for winning the honor. (Kalamazoo was one of only two public school districts to race past the 1,000 or so entries and make it into the final six.)

Incredibly, happily, Kalamazoo won.  Here is Katie Couric's segment on the Promise:

And here is the essay:

Kalamazoo Central is a diverse, dynamic and dedicated community of students and staff committed to our district’s mission:  Every Child, Every Opportunity, Every Time. We challenge ourselves to take more AP classes (an increase of 221% in 4 years); we involve ourselves in our community through activism such as PeaceJam; and we take classes such as aviation technology and construction trades that prepare us for careers and college.  Our relationships with teachers and staff empower us all to form a united bond and a belief in our end goal:  changing the world through education.  Since 2006, 91% of all Kalamazoo Central graduates have attended college, affirming a college going culture in a vibrant community of 1700.  The Kalamazoo Promise—free college tuition for all—gives us the opportunity to achieve our college dreams. Our superintendent phrased it best:  
“If you’re looking for a community where going to college is a birthright, then Kalamazoo Public Schools isn’t it; but, if you’re looking for a community trying to send a whole host of students to college, then Kalamazoo Central is a model of that success.” 
We no longer merely hope for a future; we are confident that we are the future.

Considering that our fine Republican legislature decided to cut the Michigan Promise College Scholarship, a $3,000 lifeline for some 100,000 students, as a way of sticking it to higher Public Education in the guise of Saving Our Budget, the success of the Kalamazoo Promise is even more noteworthy.  Which leads me to wonder why President Obama didn't even mention it during his commencement speech.

He lauded the community and the parents and the students, and they truly deserved it--they're truly great--but  The Kalamazoo Promise is big.  It is life-changing.  One thing is leading to another, and  "Promise Zones" are popping up all over the place.  It is a welcome shot in the arm for the chronically ailing Public Education.  How about a little rah-rah from our top Public Servant?  It's right there in the essay:  Free college tuition for all.  It just jumps out at you, doesn't it?  So why wouldn't he want to talk about one of the very reasons why these kids (and their parents and their teachers and their administrators) have worked so hard to get  ready for college placement?  A golden opportunity to give a shout-out to the people who got this thing going, who are keeping it going, and who don't give a care about tooting their own horns.  That in itself is pretty earth-shaking. (I'm guessing they're not politicians.)

June 14 - (Disregard all that I said above about Obama missing an opportunity to praise the Kalamazoo Promise.  He did it, and did it well, and I completely missed it, both in listening to his speech and reading the transcript later.  Mea culpa.  My good friend Ramona (Yes, there are two of us) gave me the quote in the comments below.  Thank you, friend.  I hate it when I'm so obviously wrong, but I would hate it even more if I didn't have a chance to fix it.)



  1. Dear Mona - Apparently you didn't hear the following in Obama's speech? I also printed it in my excerpts in the Marcellus News
    "In the end, service binds us to each other -- and to our communities and our country -- in a way that nothing else can. It’s how we become more fully American.

    That’s the reason those donors created the Kalamazoo Promise in the first place -- not for recognition or reward, but because of their connection to this community; because their belief in your potential; because their faith that you would use this gift not just to enrich your own lives, but the lives of others and the life of the nation.

    And I’m told that soon after the Promise was established, a first grader approached the superintendent at the time and declared to her: “I’m going to college.” First grader. “I’m going to college. I don’t know what it is, but I’m going.”

    We may never know those donors’ names, but we know how they helped bring this community together and how you’ve embraced their Promise not just as a gift to be appreciated, but a responsibility to be fulfilled. We know how they have helped inspire an entire generation of young people here in Kalamazoo to imagine a different future for themselves.

    And graduates, today, I’m asking you to pay them back by seeking to have the same kind of impact with your own lives; by pursuing excellence in everything you do; by serving this country that you love."

  2. Ramona. . .Gaaah! How on earth did I miss that? I listened to his speech and then went back and read the transcript, and I have no explanation for how I could have overlooked that!

    Now I go back, redfaced, and add an addendum. My fault completely. Mea culpa.

    (Thanks for letting me know. I would hate to think this would have remained, when it was completely untrue.)


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