Seattle schools could use some of what Kalamazoo has (yes, you read right)

The Michigan city is jazzed about a promise to pay full tuition for students graduating from its public schools. Would something similar work in Seattle, addressing our inequalities in education?

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Students at a graduation ceremony for Kalamazoo's Loy Norrix High School.

The Michigan city is jazzed about a promise to pay full tuition for students graduating from its public schools. Would something similar work in Seattle, addressing our inequalities in education?

I recently spent four days in Kalamazoo, Michigan working with a congregation there and heard a lot about an amazing venture of which Kalamazoo residents are very proud — The Kalamazoo Promise.

Now 5 years old, The Kalamazoo Promise promises to pay full tuition to students who go all the way through and graduate from the Kalamazoo Public Schools. The tuition promise applies at any state supported university, college, or community college in Michigan. Students who enter the school system part way through their school years qualify for partial support, calculated on the basis of how many years they have attended KPS schools.

The Kalamazoo Promise is not only offering hope to students and their families who weren't able to think about a college education, it is transforming the whole city. Kalamazoo, a city of 78,000, in western Michigan had suffered many of the challenges of other cities in the region: loss of longtime businesses and employers, white-flight from the public schools (the larger metropolitan region is over 300,000), and a deteriorating downtown core. All of these factors came together to create a sense of diminished hope and abandonment in this proud, mid-western community.

The Kalamazoo Promise has been one big part of a turn around that has led to a growth in residents as well as enrollment in the public schools, an enrollment that now stands at 12,000. But The Promise has done more.

Along with other efforts to build the city's downtown and strengthen the economy, Kalamazoo has experienced a new burst of civic pride, positive publicity, and a renewed sense of civic life. The downtown is increasingly busy and attractive. City schools that had been losing students to private schools and suburban districts are now growing. (Private schools are now losing enrollment and aren't happy.)

The overall population of Kalamazoo is growing as well. Many older adults have gotten involved in the schools as tutors, helping students make it to high school graduation and be college-ready.

Funded by private, anonymous donors described on the Promise website as "Very Nice People," The Kalamazoo Promise is set up for "perpetuity." Any student who graduates from KPS schools will have tuition and mandatory fees covered for any state supported university, college, community college, or trade or vocational school. Students must go full time (12 credit hours) and maintain a 2.0 college GPA. It's a long-term strategy for economic revitalization that has created a buzz, and more importantly, hope.

Could Seattle learn something from Kalamazoo? For years we have heard laments about dis-proportionality, meaning that minority and poor students don't do as well as better off and Anglo students in our schools. Various educational reform efforts haven't turned that around. Moreover, there should be greater concern about a school graduation rate of 68 percent.

What about a Seattle Promise? Maybe it's for the whole district (45,000 students) or maybe there’s some way that it's for schools and students in Seattle's south-end? Wouldn't that mix things up in the Emerald City?

Certainly, the resources to fund such a venture are here. Right now the work being done with such resources is heavily targeted at global health and development. That's great. And yet it seems odd, even short sighted, not to focus more of that largess locally in effective ways.

Some potential donors have been known to draw back from giving to the Seattle School District for lack of confidence in district leadership and policies. But a program like The Kalamazoo Promise stimulates the school district while sending the funds directly to students and their families.

In Kalamazoo there is a long tradition of civic pride and involvement and a sense of "being in this together." Seattle has some of that. Does it have enough of that spirit to develop the resources that would make the city the kind of beacon of hope and promise that Kalamazoo has become?


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Anthony B. Robinson

Anthony B. Robinson was the Senior Minister of Plymouth Church in downtown Seattle from 1990 to 2004. He was also a member of the Plymouth Housing Group Board. After living for many years in southeast Seattle, he moved recently to Ballard.