In a recent New York Times article (here), Ted C. Fishman offers and in-depth feature on the Kalamazoo Promise:

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.

Since 2005, all graduates from Kalamazoo public schools who have attended since they were freshmen have been eligible for a scholarship program that sends them to college while they (and our government, for that matter) incur little to no debt at all. Given our country’s looming higher ed bubble, this fact alone makes the Promise a significant achievement. However, Fishman’s article highlights many social gains and lessons worth highlighting here as well.

For example, Fishman’s article demonstrates the power of prudent philanthropy to promote social change:

“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.

The power of good incentives for improving educational quality:

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.

The power of civil society for integral development:

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.

The power of competition to promote positive change:

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.

However, it also reveals some shortcomings. Philanthropy like the Promise is integral to healthy societies and economies, but not sufficient:

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….

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.

A need for healthier families and a stronger moral and spiritual culture are, no doubt, part of the reason for the lingering of these “troubling conditions.” Nevertheless, it is clear from the foregoing that the moral value of such philanthropy is not limited to the philanthropist. It has sparked hope and revival in a (once) down-and-out city. Fishman highlights the testimony of one of this year’s graduates:

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

For more on the Kalamazoo Promise, I highly recommend reading Fishman’s story in full (here).