Why These Kids Get a Free Ride to College

Why These Kids Get a Free Ride to College

Published: September 13, 2012

Wings Stadium, a dim, beery sports barn in Kalamazoo, Mich., is an appropriate home for the K-Wings minor-league hockey team and the Killamazoo Derby Darlins. Yet every year, in June, the site hosts a spectacle more uplifting than a season of flip checks. This is when it is the setting for the graduations of the city’s two main high schools. A couple of nights after Kalamazoo Central High fills the arena, it’s Loy Norrix’s turn. The rink is covered, and students, friends and family take over most of the 5,100 seats.

According to census data, 39 percent of Kalamazoo’s students are white, and 44 percent are African-American. One of every three students in the Kalamazoo district falls below the national poverty level. One in 12 is homeless. Many of them are the first in their families to finish high school; many come from single-parent homes. Some are young parents themselves: Kalamazoo has one of the highest pregnancy rates among black teenagers in the state.

And yet, for the vast majority of the 500-plus students who graduate each year in Kalamazoo, a better future really does await after they collect their diplomas. The high-school degrees come with the biggest present most of them will ever receive: free college.

Back in November 2005, when this year’s graduates were in sixth grade, the superintendent of Kalamazoo’s public schools, Janice M. Brown, shocked the community by announcing that unnamed donors were pledging to pay the tuition at Michigan’s public colleges, universities and community colleges for every student who graduated from the district’s high schools. All of a sudden, students who had little hope of higher education saw college in their future. Called the Kalamazoo Promise, the program — blind to family income levels, to pupils’ grades and even to disciplinary and criminal records — would be the most inclusive, most generous scholarship program in America.

It would also mark the start of an important social experiment. From the very beginning, Brown, the only person in town who communicates directly with the Promise donors, has suggested that the program is supposed to do more than just pay college bills. It’s primarily meant to boost Kalamazoo’s economy. The few restrictions — among them, children must reside in the Kalamazoo public-school district and graduate from one of its high schools — seem designed to encourage families to stay and work in the region for a long time. The program tests how place-based development might work when education is the first investment.

“Other communities invest in things like arenas or offer tax incentives for businesses or revitalize their waterfronts,” says Michelle Miller-Adams, a political scientist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, which is located in the city. “The Kalamazoo Promise tries to develop the local economy with a long-term investment in human capital that is intended to change the town from the bottom up.” In this regard, the Promise can be seen as an exorbitant ante, staked by private funds, that calls to Kalamazoo’s better angels. It stokes hometown pride, prods citizens to engage and pulls businesses and their leaders into the public sphere. To date, Miller-Adams says, Kalamazoo’s Promise has inspired donors in 25 other cities and towns around the United States — including Pittsburgh, New Haven and El Dorado, Ark. — to start, or consider starting, similar programs.

Student orators at the June graduations thanked their teachers and parents. A few moms shouted out, “We love you!” When the speakers, their eyes scanning the stands for signs of their unseen benefactors, thanked “the anonymous donors of the Kalamazoo Promise,” Wings Stadium filled up with hollers, horns and whistles.

“Without your gift, Kalamazoo may have swirled into a downfall, similar to many of the other cities in Michigan.”

From a letter to the donors by Sam Barton, Loy Norrix High School, class of 2012.

Kalamazoo, population 74,000, anchors a metro region of 326,000. It sits halfway between Chicago and Detroit. Since its beginnings, it has been a capital of one industry or another. In the early 20th century, it was Celery City. Then manufacturing took over; even during the Depression, the region had more than 150 local factories. Gibson guitars and Checker cabs were made near downtown. By the late 1950s, Kalamazoo was Paper City, one of the most productive paper-mill towns in the world. In 1966, General Motors opened a stamping plant that would employ 4,000 workers. That number dropped to 1,700 by late 1994, however, and less than a decade later Checker, the big paper mills and G.M. were gone. What local industries remained then turned to the playbook of manufacturers all over the country: they consolidated, relocated to the South or abroad or automated their operations. The region has lost more than 16,000 jobs since 2007.

For decades, the prosperity of the homegrown Upjohn Company, controlled by the Upjohn family, cushioned the blows to Kalamazoo’s economy. In the 1950s, the company built the world’s largest pharmaceutical plant in Portage, outside Kalamazoo. With one of the world’s most innovative drug laboratories and deepest portfolios of patented drugs, its research facilities alone supported as many as 3,000 highly skilled, well-paid workers.

In addition to providing jobs, Upjohn was a source of wide-ranging philanthropy, fostering a civic culture that served to attract and retain scientific and managerial talent. The company supported a public math and science academy. Its founder pushed to install Kalamazoo’s first professional city manager. The family also propagated a philanthropic class that established mandarin amenities like the Kalamazoo Symphony Orchestra. Three postsecondary schools are located in town: Kalamazoo College, which is private, and Western Michigan University and Kalamazoo Valley Community College, which are public. Kalamazoo was an example of what modern urbanists extol as “the creative city.”

After a century of independence, the Upjohn Company appointed its first nonfamily C.E.O. in 1987. In 2003, following nearly a decade of mergers, the company was folded into Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company. Pfizer shuttered the Kalamazoo labs and slashed operations. The big Portage factory is still open, but it’s just an outpost in a huge empire.

Even as it endured setbacks, the area remained better off than much of the industrial Midwest. In Upjohn’s shadow, for instance, a medical-device company called Stryker Corporation was developing a business making innovative hospital beds and artificial joints. But Kalamazoo’s core was beset by poverty, unemployment, depressed property values and thoroughfares lined with dollar stores, storefront churches and charities for the needy. It looked like one of the country’s bleakest industrial cities.

Local donors and business groups established assorted councils, forums and task forces to help the region; a parade of experts from far and wide came to town to present their blueprints for reinvention. One scheme raised the possibility of Kalamazoo privatizing its state-of-the-art sewer system, built when the city anticipated unlimited growth by the paper mills. “We flirted with every fad,” Randall Eberts, an economist who heads the Upjohn Institute, told me recently. “We had committees on our ‘regional edge,’ on how to create ‘industry clusters.’ ” Eberts pulled out a 10-page chronology of 64 local revitalization efforts between 1997 and 2004 and laughed. “The whole history of all the recent trends in economic development is right here; we’ve done everything.”

Then the Promise was made.

“I am a triplet. . . . It’s hard enough for a family to pay for college for one child, but three, at once — now that’s crazy. . . . It was my sixth-grade year when the donations were made and officially announced. I’m pretty sure that my mother cried.”

-Melia Scheck, Kalamazoo Central High School, class of 2012

“After the Promise was announced on the 11 o’clock news, the kids were up celebrating until 2 or 3 in the morning,” Ron Cunliffe, a Kalamazoo dad with three children eligible for the Promise, says. “We kept waiting for someone to say it was a joke.”

Under the terms of the program, students who start in the Kalamazoo school district as kindergartners receive enough money to cover their entire tuition to public in-state schools. Students who enter the district in later grades get less, based on a sliding scale; entering high-school freshmen, for example, get 65 percent of their tuition covered. (Those who move to Kalamazoo after that or who enroll in colleges that are private or located outside the state are not covered by the Promise.) To date, the Kalamazoo Promise has paid out $35 million for postsecondary study for 2,500 students. On average, about $4,200 is spent on each student per semester. Students are responsible for their own room and board.

A few years after the Promise was announced, Cunliffe lost his job as a pharmaceutical rep. He now makes about 40 percent of his former salary, an amount he says would have made college tuition tough to afford.

Xochitl Gonzalez, then a senior, was sitting in her homeroom when the vice principal at Kalamazoo Central announced over the P.A. that donors would pay for their college tuition. “My classmates started crying,” Gonzalez says. “I cried, too. It seemed unreal. Before the announcement, a lot of my classmates weren’t going to go to college. Afterward, everyone applied.” Gonzalez was eligible to have 95 percent of her tuition paid. Now, just one semester shy of college graduation from Western Michigan University, she is taking a break. Her family was recently fighting to stave off foreclosure on its home and could not spare the few hundred dollars she needed to pay the rest of her tuition. Gonzalez expects to return for her final semester. The Promise allows students 10 years to finish up.

While Promise money goes to postsecondary-school education only, the program has nonetheless brought change to the Kalamazoo public schools. It gives district officials a powerful inducement with which to motivate students, families and teachers. Michael F. Rice, the superintendent who replaced Janice Brown, persuaded teachers in the city’s middle schools — several of which are near the bottom of Michigan’s official school rankings — to rejigger their schedules to move 120 hours a year into core-curriculum instruction. This enabled the schools to provide personalized remedial instruction in math and reading, after which 70 percent of the district’s middle schoolers increased their proficiency by at least one grade in those subjects.

“Elsewhere in Michigan,” says Julie Mack, an education reporter for The Kalamazoo Gazette, “teachers are up in arms over budget cuts and new work demands. In Kalamazoo, with the Promise breathing life into the schools, teachers agreed to changes practically without any objections.”

High-school test scores in Kalamazoo have improved four years in a row. A higher percentage of African-American girls graduate from the district than they do in the rest of the state, and 85 percent of those go on to college. Overall, more than 90 percent of Kalamazoo’s graduates today go on to higher education. Six in 10 go to Western Michigan University or Kalamazoo Valley Community College. And over time, a greater number of students are landing at the more selective University of Michigan and Michigan State.

“Your interest in the community paid off, because at the time of the announcement, my family had been seriously considering leaving town.”

-Dylan Hawthorne, Loy Norrix High School, class of 2012

After seven years on the job, Janice Brown stepped down as superintendent. A fit, outdoorsy woman who can still race her small grandson on a bike, she was then prevailed upon to be executive director of the Kalamazoo Promise in the third year of the program. “I told the donors I had no power after leaving the school system,” she says, “except for the network I built up while superintendent.” Instead of a big staff — one other employee pays the tuition bills, keeps track of Promise-eligible students and reviews borderline cases — Brown wields her connections and the clout that comes from being the sole liaison to the donors. “She’s like Kalamazoo’s Wizard of Oz,” Eberts says. “She kind of goes back behind the curtain, meets with the donors and communicates to the rest of us what she has to share.”

People in Kalamazoo have hunches about who the donors are. Some say they must be the Stryker family or former executives. Stryker now has 20,000 employees worldwide; $100 invested in its stock in 1982 would have been worth more than $25,000 in 2007. Three of the Strykers are billionaires, and two of them have worked in the Kalamazoo public schools. Others suggest the donors might be a group of people — among them, perhaps, Derek Jeter, the Yankees shortstop and Kalamazoo Central High alum. The mystery is built into the Promise, encouraging the people of Kalamazoo to make it their own and respond in ways to get the most out of it.

When asked how the conversations that led to the Promise unfolded, Brown demurs. “That, and the identity of the donors, are things I just will never talk about,” she says. But she lets some things slip. “The donors believed that education was the most important thing to invest in, period,” she says, for instance. But she also acknowledges that the donors do regard their gift as a communitywide experiment.

The Promise donors saw how a school district in decline and a weakening economy created a vicious circle. Poor schools hindered Kalamazoo’s ability to support businesses and bring in new ones, and as commercial activity suffered, the resources available to schools shrank. The Promise was created against a backdrop of recent economic thought that considers investment in education better than nearly every other kind of developmental effort when it comes to promoting economic growth. Eberts, for one, argues that if Kalamazoo prepares its students for college, the long-term return to the community will be an educated, innovative work force, a higher tax base and a more attractive business environment. Enrico Moretti, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that well-educated people not only make more money individually; their interactions with everyone around them also amplify a community’s wealth. The biggest difference in salaries between highly and lesser-educated regions is not found in the salaries of the elite but in those earned by lower-skilled workers. The spillover effects energize the economy at every level.

One of Brown’s roles is to enlist as much of the community as possible — businesses, government, neighborhood organizations, churches, health care providers, you name it — in providing whatever kids need to get through school and into college. This means more than better schools; it includes better nutrition for children, better housing, medical care and, most urgently, universal prekindergarten programs. But Brown’s is a delicate balancing act: businesses will not participate in anything that looks like an antipoverty program.

Brown’s work on this front takes its most concrete form in the Learning Network, an umbrella organization financed by $11 million in seed money from the Kalamazoo Community Foundation and the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. Kellogg, located 20 minutes from Kalamazoo, in Battle Creek, is the nation’s fifth-largest philanthropy and donates $360 million yearly to projects around the world, much of it on behalf of children’s welfare. According to Sterling K. Speirn, the foundation’s chief executive, it is granting money to early-childhood literacy programs in Kalamazoo partly because the Promise, by spending money on children when they’re older, gives a boost to the money Kellogg spends on younger children today.

It was standing room only at the kickoff meeting for the Learning Network held at Western Michigan University in July. I tagged along with Brown, who was not officially running the show but was treated by the businesspeople, parents and community reps who collared her as if she were. Attendees scratched their heads at organization trees and squinted at a vast flowchart showing seven goals for eight committees and listing 42 sets of statistics on welfare and student achievement that had yet to be collected. Despite the wonky talk of “benchmarks” and “consensus,” the Network’s success ultimately relies on what sociologists call mass action. This describes a population whose members are moving in the same direction without institutionalized leadership. Kalamazoo has organized around the Promise in such a way that no one is able to commandeer the collective effort; instead, citizens have to show up over and over, for one mind-numbing meeting after another, in order to network, brainstorm and keep trying to make things better. “If we blow this,” Brown says, “we’re not likely to get another Promise to get us going again.”

Peter Strazdas, the mayor of nearby Portage, says, “We’ve been through a lot of these things before, but this one feels different, like it can really do something.”

“Even with the Kalamazoo Promise, some of the students I know don’t know if they’ll be able to afford housing and food.”

-Tess Denton Duncan, Kalamazoo Central High School, class of 2012

In the 1970s, Kalamazoo, under legal pressure, tried to desegregate its schools through a combination of busing and school choice. But affluent white families fled the district, large numbers of them to suburban Portage. Brown says that in Kalamazoo, white flight was not sudden but a steady trickle. The school system was losing around 1 percent of its more affluent families, whites and others, every year for more than three decades. “That’s not a mass exodus,” she says, “but you can see how that can add up over time.”

The suburban flight stopped after the Promise was made. The city’s population has held steady, and the demographic mix in the school system has stabilized.

In the first year after the Promise, 1,000 additional students enrolled in the Kalamazoo schools. Altogether, the student population has increased by 2,450 students, or 24 percent. With every added student, the school district gets another $7,250 from the state. A new teacher can be hired for every additional 25 students; 92 have been hired so far. The district has been able to upgrade facilities and, for the first time since the 1970s, passed bond issues to build new schools.

In an unexpected twist, the Promise is also challenging nearby suburbs to compete with Kalamazoo, strengthening the region. The Portage district, which grew at the expense of the Kalamazoo district for more than 30 years, did not grow at all in the years following the Promise’s advent. Strazdas confided to me after the Learning Network meeting that the Promise initially put his town in a bind, and it took some effort for him and his constituents to respond constructively to it. Portage’s response was to build a new high school, revamp another, build two new elementary schools, expand its International Baccalaureate programs and introduce Chinese-language instruction. Last fall, for the first time since the Promise, Portage schools enrolled more students than the year before. Other surrounding districts have also built new schools and renovated old ones. Such growth in America’s northern industrial regions is a rarity.

“Every day I woke up scared of what the day had to throw at me. I wasted time dodging bullets, hateful words, ignorant bullies. . . . I felt like there were no good people left in the world. But then I heard about the Kalamazoo Promise. . . . Not everyone is like you. . . . Thank you for saving my life so I can save others.”

-Jessica Catherine Allen, Loy Norrix High School, class of 2012

Seven classes covered by the Promise have graduated, but fewer than 500 students have received their college degrees so far. That figure reflects the difficulties students have faced in trying to complete college in four years. The first cohort of students, especially those from low-income families, has had an especially hard time finishing. It is not just that they are underprepared academically, though some are. Attending college — free or not — also imposes other opportunity costs, like delayed wages, that can be hard to bear.

Neither the impact of Promise financing nor the improvements in the public schools have reversed some of the most troubling conditions that confront Kalamazoo’s children. The pregnancy rate for black teenagers in Kalamazoo has historically been the highest in the state. Nearly everywhere in the world where women have more educational and job opportunities, they have children at later ages. In Kalamazoo, young mothers are still a common sight in the school halls. Is it possible that the Promise, in being so generous and forgiving, makes having a baby in high school less of an impediment? Perhaps, but it’s also possible that Kalamazoo would have had a high teenage-pregnancy rate no matter what. The program enables many of the mothers to press on to graduation and to college.

The most stubborn failing at Kalamazoo public schools is the high dropout rate: one-third of students do not graduate. A disproportionate number of them are black males, of whom only about 44 percent graduate. Even Kalamazoo, with the offer of free college tuition, has not figured out how to overcome the nation’s so-called achievement gap, which sharply separates the academic performance, and graduation rates, of urban black males from black females and whites of both sexes. In Kalamazoo, African-American girls graduate in much higher numbers. To lift up the public schools overall, the focus must turn to African-American boys in particular, and to the challenges that keep them back.

People at the Learning Network are hoping that one possible solution might be more early-childhood education. There is an emerging consensus in economics that the biggest bang for the economic-development buck comes from investing in quality preschool education rather than higher education. The view has gained currency among education policy makers too; children who fall behind in school in early grades find later grades increasingly hard to handle. This thinking draws heavily on the work of James Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago and a Nobel Prize winner, who stresses pushing disadvantaged children into enriched learning environments as early as possible. Dollars spent on getting very young children, even toddlers, ready to learn, the argument goes, do more to propel students through their school careers than any other spending.

It’s a proposition that has influenced many in Kalamazoo. For example, Tim Bartik, an economist at the Upjohn Institute who recently served on the Kalamazoo school board, supports the Promise but maintains that early-childhood programs are needed to complement it. His book, “Investing in Kids,” has become a touchstone among local educators and philanthropists. It looks at the long-term economic impact of early-childhood programs on specific communities. According to his analysis, the programs raise the earnings of area residents, improve the balance sheets of local governments and elevate property values. What’s more, he offers data to show that money spent on early-childhood education is likely to be spent on children who will be around as adults; more than 60 percent of Americans live in the same region they lived in at age 4.

“Growing up . . . I was wondering what is this Promise, and how does it affect me? When I entered middle school, teachers were all talking about this Kalamazoo Promise. I finally started to get ahold of the concept. . . . I started to get focused on school. I wanted what everyone else had.

-Marcus Allen Whittaker, Loy Norrix High School, class of 2012

On a day late in the school year last May, Michael Rice made a visit to one of the district’s many third-grade classes. He took over as Kalamazoo’s superintendent of schools after leading a district of similar size in Clifton, N.J., and quickly devoted himself to local and statewide education issues. He lobbies in Lansing for public-school districts, whose overall allocations from the state have been cut the last two years by a newly conservative legislature. He works hard at being the face of the public schools and does things like put his picture on bookmarks for the citywide reading program. But he also operates intimately, going on rounds to meet students. His visit today completed his yearly tour of all the third-grade classes.

The students gathered on a rug while he sat in one child-size chair next to a whiteboard propped on another. “There’s just one city in the country where if you graduate from high school you get to go to college free,” he said. “Where?” The kids together cried out, “Kalamazoo!” Rice, too, is trying to foster a college-going culture, the kind that exists in wealthier school districts. “The Kalamazoo Promise,” he said, “ is free for your parents, but not for you. You have to pay for it with hard work.” He then asked if the students had learned about fractions yet. Yes, they shouted. He drew a pie chart divided into three on the whiteboard, then shaded in two of the sections. “In Kalamazoo schools,” he said, “two-thirds of the students graduate and one-third drop out. Why?” A girl in front said the dropouts are not serious; another said they cannot do the work; a boy suggested that the failing students do not go to school and tell themselves they can get to it all “tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow.”

Rice then distributed copies of Langston Hughes’s poem “Mother to Son,” an ode to determination, and asked for a volunteer to read. A tiny girl with elaborate braids read it haltingly but bravely. Rice, smiling wide, said, “Wow.” He then recited the poem dramatically, by heart. “So boy, don’t you turn back./Don’t you set down on the steps/’Cause you finds it’s kinder hard./Don’t you fall now — ” . . .

When he finished, the students clapped wildly.


Original article: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/16/magazine/kalamazoo-mich-the-city-that-pays-for-college.html?pagewanted=6&ref=education

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