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Investment Opportunity or Fixer-Upper?

The rest of Ed World is staggering around, trying to get this school improvement thing right. Newsweek tells us that firing bad teachers is our #1 effectiveness strategy. A superintendent at a high-needs school in Rhode Island is praised by the President for the dramatic gesture of "firing"--sort of--100 teachers. Everyone now knows that reconstitution applies to more than orange juice. A whole lot of get-tough and not much what-next.

Most of the angst centers on what to do about schools in urban and rural poverty--and most of the proposed solutions feel like the same old punitive shtick: throw the bums out, don't waste money trying to fix a crumbling system, start over.

But then there's Kalamazoo, where a group of private investors has decided on a very different and almost radical strategy: work with, enhance and challenge the people and assets already in place. The Kalamazoo Promise offered all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools financial assistance for a college education--a full scholarship for those who spend their entire K-12 tenure in KPS. While the scholarship isn't based on grades, test scores or good behavior, students must meet acceptance requirements for the college they choose, and maintain a 2.0 GPA while a full-time college student.

Kalamazoo is a rustbelt city which looks a lot like middle America, demographically--with 62% of the student population on free/reduced lunch. But it has some real assets: Western Michigan University is in Kalamazoo, plus a comprehensive community college. The Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center offers a rigorous accelerated HS curriculum for qualified students. Michigan also has a broad range of public colleges and universities in all selectivity and cost tiers. If a KPS student can get into college--the money is there.

Enrollment at KPS is up--11% the year after the Promise was announced, refilling the state aid coffers and reversing a trend of advantaged families moving to nearby suburban districts. The Promise has drawn new businesses to the area, and significantly increased the number of teachers applying for jobs in Kalamazoo. The district began to promote National Board Certification for its teachers through a negotiated salary incentive, rewarding teachers for investing in their own professional growth.

Charter schools in the area closed, due to low test scores and student migration back to KPS. Attendance at parent-teacher events increased and local businesses, eager to ride the wave, offered goods and services. Kalamazoo's (strongly unionized) teachers tell me that the new college-focused climate--a sea change, one teacher called it--outweighs the dozens of new instructional challenges.
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Most policy solutions to our thorniest educational troubles begin with a problem-fixing mindset. If only we could ________ (fire bad teachers/get the right curriculum, governance or leadership/add more time or resources), then we could whip these schools into shape. Race to the Top conditions were predicated on what's wrong and came with pre-chosen solutions.

The Promise isn't like that. It simply offers a great gift--a significant investment, one that can change hundreds of students' lives. It offers students a concrete and tangible goal, and its residual benefits have spread across the community, rather than remaining concentrated in the schools. The Promise has become a community point of pride. And--best of all, I believe--it has changed the families, re-energizing an old American dream: that our children will achieve more in their lives than we have.

Kathleen Kosobud, who met advocate moms from Kalamazoo at an education conference wrote something that every would-be urban school reformer ought to consider:

As a white, middle class professional, I just didn't think about all that it would take to make something such as the Kalamazoo Promise a reality for children who would be the pioneers--the first children in their families to enter college.

A group of mothers in Kalamazoo organized to help their children successfully achieve the Kalamazoo Promise. They saw the "Promise" slipping away from their children--the carrot, alone, was not enough. On their own initiative, the mothers found the human resources to teach them about the unspoken rituals that would help prepare their children for college.

They learned to visualize the future differently for their children. They engaged in all of the rituals of preparing for college: taking the tests, taking them again, if necessary; visiting local colleges; reading about colleges online, or through brochures; learning about the application process, and so on.

They found the human resources to support their children through tough academic courses and to mentor them through developing their portfolios of experience to supplement their applications. This group of mothers went on to teach others what they had learned.

These mothers, these pioneers, pressured the schools to see their children as worthy of effort; increased their knowledge and skills in the service of their children, and helped to make the phenomenal success of the program a reality for their children.

It wasn't the schools, alone, that accomplished this. It was mothers who bravely stood up for their children and demanded to be educated so that their children would have the opportunity. We need to remember that parents are a vital part of the success that their children experience. When we help parents to build the capital needed to transcend the boundaries of class, we can achieve much.

As we handicap the horse-race for federal dollars, let's ask whether we're fixing problems or investing in possible futures.

Addendum, March 14: I was contacted by Dr. Janice Brown, Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Promise, with an update on the project. Kalamazoo Public Schools have now experienced a 17% upswing in growth, over four years, a most impressive figure in economically depressed Michigan. Brown says the community has been mobilized and resources are aligning to support all students in Kalamazoo.

For a CBS video of Katie Couric interviewing Dr. Brown, click here.

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