Free-tuition program Kalamazoo Promise delivers for students

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Posted: Sep 10, 2015 1:32 AM
Free-tuition program Kalamazoo Promise delivers for students

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) — A decade after the Kalamazoo Promise was made, the free-tuition program's impact reverberates in its home city and beyond.

The anonymously funded plan, announced in the fall of 2005, pays the college tuition of students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools in Michigan.

The Promise has provided $67 million in scholarships, and students have earned more than 850 degrees and post-secondary credentials. Close to 4,000 students have taken advantage of the program.

Here's a look at the Kalamazoo Promise's first 10 years and what's ahead:

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PROMISE KEPT

Those involved in the Kalamazoo Promise from the beginning never doubted it would boost college enrollment for Kalamazoo graduates.

What wasn't known was whether the program would increase college graduation rates. It did that, too.

A study released this summer by the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research shows students eligible for the Promise are a third more likely to graduate from college within six years of finishing high school compared with their peers before the program existed.

"I just feel like I have an obligation to graduate, in a weird way, because they're literally handing me a check, saying: 'Go to school,'" said Bryce Burnette, 22, a 2011 graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School and a Promise recipient who hopes to become a teacher.

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NEW KALAMAZOO

The Kalamazoo district has grown by more than 2,000 students, or 24 percent. Three new school buildings have opened in the past 10 years — with a fourth on the way — as families pour into the district to gain Promise eligibility.

The Promise has "really changed the culture of Kalamazoo," said Breanna Gilland, an 18-year-old freshman who is using her scholarship dollars at the University of Michigan.

"It has brought hope — true hope — to this city," said Jasmine Granville, whose scholarship allowed her to earn a criminal justice degree from Western Michigan University last year.

It's a feeling that had been lacking in the city of 75,000 where, according to the most recent census estimates, two out of five residents under the age of 18 live in poverty.

Granville said "college was never an option" for her pre-Promise. Now, the 24-year-old has a bachelor's degree and plans to attend law school.

"Kalamazoo was a very dark place — still can be sometimes," she said. But the Promise and what it offers "is a huge deal. I'm blessed to have been a part of it," she added.

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MORE PROMISES

Similar programs have surfaced elsewhere — many patterned after Kalamazoo's.

It's a point of pride for city officials.

"There are now over 30 Promise communities. Over 30," Kalamazoo Mayor Bobby Hopewell said. "We did that. We're driving education and opportunity in our nation."

The Pittsburgh Promise was launched in Pennsylvania's second-largest city two years after the Kalamazoo announcement.

"Kalamazoo has played an important part in making college access a priority on the national agenda and started a movement of programs that have popped up in many other communities," said Saleem Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh program.

The Promise program in Hartford, Connecticut, will award scholarships of up to $20,000 to every eligible Hartford resident beginning with the class of 2016.

"Kalamazoo has been extremely important, in fact central, in magnifying the issue of college opportunities for all. They are at the heart of it," said Richard Sugarman, Hartford Promise executive director.

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PHASE 2

The first decade of the Kalamazoo Promise was focused on getting things up and running, said Von Washington Jr., the program's executive director of community relations.

"When it was announced, there was not even a way to give it out," Washington said. "So, the first 10 years has been about building those relationships with colleges and universities, helping people understand the nature of the scholarship ... and all those types of things."

Washington said the next 10 years — or what he calls "Phase 2" — will be about ensuring the most students possible take advantage of the scholarships and complete college.

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Online:

Kalamazoo Promise: https://www.kalamazoopromise.com

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Follow Mike Householder on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mikehouseholder