"Kalamazoo Promise" Delivers

Welcome to Kalamazoo, Michigan — America's unlikely educational promised land, thanks to "The Kalamazoo Promise."

And Kalamazoo's patron saint of education is Superintendent Janice Brown, CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric reports.

"We will not rest until every child is educated every time," Brown says.

Seven years ago, this one-time special education teacher hatched a very special idea – a free college education for everyone in her school district. She says it took five years of conversations and a lot of faith to convince a group of anonymous donors to foot the bill: $12 million a year. And don't even try to ask her about who they are.

"I just say the donors," Brown says.

Students have to maintain a "C" average. They must attend a Kalamazoo public school for four years to have 65 percent of their tuition covered. The longer they're there, the more they get. If they attend from kindergarten on, it's a free ride.

Many families are moving there for that reason. "We have people from 23 different states right now. We had a family come in from Russia," Brown says.

"How can you have a healthy community — healthy economics — if you do not have a very well educated workforce? Can't happen," Brown says.

Since the program started last year the economic impact has been swift and impressive. The one-time manufacturing town relied on paper mills. When they shut down, the city fell on hard times. But now it's learning a lot about the power of the promise. They have 800 new families in the school district, a $10 million housing development, rising property values and two new schools. But the impact of investing in Kalamazoo's kids? Priceless.

Brown says she's seen this change the school system and the students. "A first grader coming up to me saying, 'I'm going to college. I don't know what it is, but I'm going,'" Brown says is an example of that change.

"Money is going to be a lot easier to come by for school," a student says.

"I was near dropping out and once I heard about 'The Promise,' I got back in school and I'm currently getting my grades up to graduate this year," says Molly, another student.

But the Kalamazoo promise cannot promise everything. Twenty-five percent of the population lives below the poverty line. Some of them are homeless and some of them are having real struggles.

"They can't think about the Kalamazoo Promise if they're hungry. They can't think about the Kalamazoo Promise if they're angry and lashing out, so that's the challenge," Brown says.

But in so many ways, it has delivered -- more inspired students, a more educated city, and kids who are invested in Kalamazoo's future as Kalamazoo is in theirs.

"I would like to experience life, go off and do something else, but I will come back to Kalamazoo," says one student. "I'm just going to come back and do whatever I have to do to return the favor."

Brown says she "absolutely" thinks it could be replicated in other cities across the country. "What the Kalamazoo Promise is about is will," she says, "and whether or not a community has the will to do this work is the true question."
  • Melissa McNamara

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