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Can-do in Kalamazoo

Anonymous benefactors are helping to reshape the Michigan city's schools and revive its fortunes.

December 18, 2006

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES — at least in Kalamazoo.

A year ago, the Michigan town's schools were like those in many other Rust Belt cities, with declining enrollment, low test scores and a high dropout rate. Then anonymous donors announced the Kalamazoo Promise: a four-year scholarship to any of Michigan's public universities or colleges for local public school graduates. The amount of the scholarship is prorated depending on how long the student has lived in the district, but it amounts to at least 65% of tuition.

It was, to say the least, a generous educational offer, but its main effect was intended to be economic. So far, it's working much better than similar economic revitalization programs.

An influx of ambitious families raised enrollment in the district to more than 11,000, from about 10,000 a year ago. Largely because of the demographic change, test scores rose in the first year, and local voters, newly excited about the schools, approved an $85-million bond for them.

Economically, the offer has had a discernible effect on real estate. According to reports in the Kalamazoo Gazette, real estate sales and prices are up in the district, while they've suffered in surrounding areas. Houses that go on the market generally sport two signs -- one the agent's usual marker and another noting that the house qualifies for the Kalamazoo Promise. New residential developments are planned, targeted to families drawn by the offer.

The program already has inspired similar ones in other cities, including Dayton and Pittsburgh. The unanswered question about this social experiment is whether it will achieve its long-term goals of improving schools and bringing in more employers. But by attracting families and students who are determinedly college-bound, the tuition offer already is starting to change the culture in schools where few previously thought of such options. These families also are more likely to demand change, which benefits all students.

If nothing else, the Kalamazoo Promise is a reminder that the surest way to improve our schools -- and our economies -- is to get parents and students excited about education.

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