How the Kalamazoo Promise has changed lives

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Despite 10 years of impressive statistics during the decade since the Kalamazoo Promise was announced, more work still needs to be done.

Even among the now dozens of Promise programs across the country, Kalamazoo is still somewhat unique. It’s a “first dollar” scholarship program, one that guarantees full tuition before any federal or state grants.

“This gift, actually, while it may seem like it was given to a bunch of individual students, it was given to a community to mold and shape and to use in a way that creates access for everyone,” said Von Williams, the executive director of communications for the Kalamazoo Promise and former principal of Kalamazoo Central High School. “People know that investing in our youth makes the most sense. It’s our only human capital strategy that we have in our country, and if we invest in our youth we’ll have a strong nation.”

It’s an anonymous gift that keeps on giving. The Kalamazoo Promise has given out a total of $67 million so far, and the anonymous donors have vowed to endow the Promise in perpetuity.

“We really did know that it was a life-changing, life-altering experience to have the gates open and opportunity come before you when you didn’t have it before,” said Dr. Janice Brown, a trustee for the Kalamazoo Promise. She was the superintendent of Kalamazoo Public Schools 10 years ago and announced the Promise program. “It has evolved into more than I think anyone could ever comprehend.”

The Promise has generated impressive statistics for Kalamazoo Public Schools. It’s a rare public urban school district in Michigan that has seen enrollment numbers jump. Enrollment now tops 12,000 students, a jump of 23 percent. KPS hasn’t seen numbers that high since the mid-1990s. More students are taking advanced placement classes, and more students are going to college in the first place.

In 2014, KPS said that 78 percent of their graduates went on to college, but it’s the number of students who finish that leaves room for improvement. According to research done by the Upjohn Institute, about 40 percent of KPS students who go on to college graduate. That number has increased by 10 percent since the creation of the Promise.

“We’ve made improvements in that area, but we have a great deal of work to do to make sure that they get that degree, certificate, or two-year technology degree that they need to be independent and a contribute in this society,” Brown said.

One woman who did graduate and benefit from the Promise program is Britney Schiedel. She was a junior in high school when the Promise program was announced 10 years ago, and it gave her opportunities she otherwise wouldn’t have had.

As a result of the Promise, she said as she choked back tears, “I have a home. I’m working full time. I’ve graduated. I’m getting my master’s [degree] and these are not things that would have been normally or readily accessible in my life prior to the Promise.”

Britney Schidel shows off her degree from Michigan State University. (Nov. 10, 2015)
(Britney Schidel shows off her degree from Michigan State University.)

Schiedel worked full time, was a single mom and attended Michigan State University. She graduated in four years with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice, and more importantly, she said, a future.

“My mom when she had me was a single mom. She was on assistance. Then I had my daughter, I was a single mom. I was on assistance and I ended it,” said Schiedel. “That was all contributed to the Kalamazoo Promise.”

Schiedel is now pursuing her master’s degree in social work at Western Michigan University and volunteers at KPS. She sends her daughter to KPS and said she has already noticed a change in the culture at the district. She said she’s seen more rigorous academics, and more of a focus on college early on.

She said she thinks her daughter will be even better prepared for college than she and the rest of her class were.

“I think [succeeding in college] it’s dependent upon your determination, your motivation,” Schiedel said. “If you’re going to do the work, you’re going to do it and you’re going to graduate, but when I think about our class as a whole… there weren’t many [who took advantage of the Promise] but the people who did utilize it utilized it in the best way.”

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