“Ten years ago we lost 14,000 jobs over a four year period. This year we’ve already added 5,500!” Ron Kitchens, CEO of Southwest Michigan First was addressing our quarterly Community Celebration of Excellence event in Effingham County, IL.
He used a sailing analogy to explain what Kalamazoo, MI did to turn itself around, “If you’re sailing and the wind dies down, you’re in trouble. Sailors of old had three choices when the wind died…drift into the rocks and hope you survive, drop anchor and wait or do what is called ketching. The captain would have sailors row the anchor out as far at the anchor cable would allow and drop it. Then, all hands on deck would pull the boat toward that anchor.”
He went on, “When we were stranded as a community, we decided to ketch our way to prosperity. Education is the rope that we are using to pull ourselves toward the future.”
“Several years ago, we did an evaluation of ourselves and found that we were a city in trouble. We quickly realized that we were going to be broke in three years. Our schools were going downhill, losing ½ of their kids in ten years.”
The plan developed, called the Kalamazoo Promise, is a commitment that if you attend Kalamazoo schools you’ll have tuition and fees paid to attend any public college or university in the state of MI.
And the results of that bold promise?
“In the last two years we’ve had 1,400 new students in our schools. They’ve come from 33 states and 8 foreign countries. Our dropout rate has been cut in half. We passed our first school bond referendum in over 40 years! We are racing to the top.”
Another innovative program in Kalamazoo is their College Student Internship Program which they’ve recently started, paring college students with local businesses. A student can earn $3,000 for the summer with a $500 bonus if they meet the employer’s expectations. A local private foundation will match that $500 bonus and also award them a $5,000 scholarship. Their goal is that ½ of the students will end up returning to Kalamazoo after graduation.
“We’re marrying education with the opportunity to succeed in Kalamazoo.”
Kitchens pointed out that at least 24 other USA towns have copied the Kalamazoo Promise, with many others looking at it.
Last week I received an email from good friend and Boomtown advocate Joy Foy from MS. Here is what she reported to me about similar programs in her state: “Lee, Monroe, Itawamba, Union, and Pontotoc Counties have all announced scholarship programs to cover tuition for any student to attend 2 years of community college. We’ve got others also looking at copying.”
Steve Bushue is passionately setting up a similar program in my home county, Effingham. Initial funds have been raised and plans are to greatly expand so that we can kick off our own Effingham Promise.
What are you promising your young people?