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I've Got a School...in Kalamazoo

My last blog was a response to educational philanthropy predicated on charitable support of charters as the prime solution to beating back school dysfunction reputedly caused by slothful unionized teachers. Anyone reading it might--rightfully--ask: If public schools in poverty-stressed cities are terrible, what other options do parents have, besides free charter schools? Even if we can't save all the kids, what's wrong with saving some of them, and feeling good about our beneficence at the same time?

In 2005, an anonymous donor group instituted the Kalamazoo Promise--a pledge to pay for college educations of kids who graduate from public high schools in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Students who attend Kalamazoo Public Schools for twelve years get full tuition at any Michigan public college or university--and those who attend KPS for shorter spans get financial support for college on a prorated scale.

While students have to perform well enough to get into higher education, the option of attending college is suddenly very real. In the past five years, a stunning 86.5% of students eligible to take advantage of the Promise by enrolling in college have done so--a percentage that cushy suburban schools, or ambitious charters, might run as a banner headline on their websites.

There's a lot to say about the Kalamazoo Promise, of course. The most interesting aspect? Promise donors are running a large-scale public experiment in what happens when funders get behind the notion that a healthy urban public school system can prepare all students for post-secondary education, and that making college a reality for all children is the critical turnaround incentive. Instead of saving the children one charter school at a time, what if we started saving them one public district at a time by creating a climate of investment and higher expectations? Without nasty PR battles and name-calling?

Not that things are all flowers and sausages in Kalamazoo. High school teachers there have been inundated with students whose preparation for pre-college coursework was based on zero future planning. Minority enrollment and percentages of kids on free and reduced lunch have increased. The necessary supports--tutoring, remedial classes, reconfiguring high school programs--to scaffold successful navigation of higher education are currently a mixed-quality patchwork. Racial and class-based tensions have flared, as students previously considered "not college material" experienced a transformation of life goals.

More about Kalamazoo--the good, the disappointing and the hopeful--in the next blog, including some reflections from Kalamazoo's unionized teachers.

Is Kalamazoo a one-off, an unsustainable dream destined to disillusion those who believe that a uniformly well-educated society can better enhance its own economic and social health? Or is it a viable idea, waiting to be adapted across the nation? Stay tuned.

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