Kalamazoo: Promise of Early and Higher Ed

Most of my exposure to Kalamazoo, Michigan has largely been enjoying its fun-to-say-name. Turns out, though, that the city has been the site of an interesting education intervention that demands a closer look.

The Kalamazoo Promise was introduced in 2005 and basically says all graduates of the city’s high school can go to college thanks to private anonymous donors. The Promise does have some strings attached – the percent of tuition covered grows for each year a child spends in district schools, and students enrolling after freshman year of high school are not eligible. This particular provision likely draws families into the city, while limiting the use of funds to certain local colleges improves the odds that graduates will stay in the area. In this way, it’s a two-pronged approach towards human capitol development, attracting young families to the area and enticing them to stay for the long term. More details, and personal reactions from students and families, can be found in this excellent New York Times magazine piece.

What I found most interesting about this program is its sort of trickle down effect into lower grades of education. As the Times magazine piece notes, “While Promise money goes to postsecondary-school education only, the program has nonetheless brought change to the Kalamazoo public schools. It gives district officials a powerful inducement with which to motivate students, families and teachers.” The article points to changes in middle school schedules and instruction as evidence of this.

As an early education person (Advocate? Nerd? Wonk?), I’m also thrilled to see this connected to the big difference earky learning experiences can make for children. Tim Bartik of the Upjohn Institute, who is one of my favorite early education writers (yes, I have a list. No, I’m not ashamed) has written on the Promise in this working paper. He also makes the early ed connection explicitly in his blog:

“In my view, Promise-style programs and early childhood programs complement each others as ways to boost the economic fortunes of a local community….Early childhood programs intervene early to get kids on the right path, with the hard skills and soft skills to learn more as they progress in the K-12 system.  Promise-style programs provide incentives for students, school staff, parents and the community to all work together to make higher educational attainment a reality.”

In another blog following the publication of the NYT piece, Bartik notes that Kalamazoo is making real moves on early ed: “The non-profit organization KCReady4s…has begun to operate at a pilot stage, providing support for pre-K services in 2012-2013 to over 130 students. The long-run intention is to expand KCReady4s sufficiently so that together with Head Start and Michigan’s state-funded pre-K program, Kalamazoo County will offer universal access to high-quality pre-K for all county 4-year-olds.”

Since the start of the Kalamazoo Promise, 30 other communities have launched similar initiatives
(including one in Pittsburgh, but not the fictional failed “Scott’s Tots” of Office fame. These communities would also do well to heed Bartik’s advice: quality early education, especially for those kids whose background puts them most at risk for not completing high school, is a key component of an educational spectrum our economic growth needs (or, as you may have heard it called by the feds, cradle to college- and career-readiness.)

Which brings me to my personal.reflection: would I have taken the deal? My first response was reluctant – I had a wonderful experience at my private, out of state school that wouldn’t have applied in a similar program. I also previously attended a small STEM magnet out of my district, and before that a local Catholic school, largely out of my parents’ concern that our local public schools wouldn’t have prepared us as well. Would I have given all of that up to save the exorbitant amount of money I now owe in loans? Yes, but not just for the finances. In the Bartik scenario of a trickledown improvement in lower grades, sending me to our public schools wouldn’t have been anxiety-inducing to my parents; it wouldn’t have felt like putting my immediate educational needs in limbo in order to provide for my future.

And here’s my other theory, developed as a grad student before I really started at NIEER, as I was just learning the long-term benefits of early education: children rise to the expectations we have for them. Providing loving, nurturing high-quality pre-K to kids in out poorest neighborhoods shows them they are valued, a lesson which may get lost in society as they get older. A community that helps provide for higher education for its kids tells them college is necessary and valuable, and we’re gonna help you make it a reality. For me personally, it worked: neither of my parents graduated college and we grew up in a blue collar town. But college was always a question of “where,” not “if.” And by this time next year, myself and both my brothers will all have Masters degrees.

When you tell kids to shoot for the stars, and help them build the rocket to get there, it’s amazing what they can do.

(This entire post was written on my phone which 1. Is amazing technology and 2. Explains any typos.)

UPDATE, 9/20/2012: “The 6th Floor” blog also from the New York Times asks: “Is Skepticism Too High for the Kalamazoo Promise to Work in New York?” The piece explores both skepticism and financial limits to funding a similar program in New York City, and is an interesting jumping off point for further conversations about programs designed to help get kids to college.

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