Would Promise Work Here

November 18, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Kalamazoo Promise has created another opportunity to review what is necessary to create a good education program in public schools, and money is only one factor.

Following the announcement of The Kalamazoo Promise, many are speculating whether Grand Rapids Public Schools would, could or should follow suit.

“Unprecedented,” is what Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, calls the Promise, which offers students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools a scholarship to any state public university or community college.

The Kalamazoo Promise scholarship amount ranges from 100 percent for those who have attended since kindergarten to 65 percent for those who have attended since ninth grade; those who enter after ninth grade are not eligible.

“I commend the folks from Kalamazoo,” said Sieger. “What a phenomenal gift.”

If a similar program were to arise in Grand Rapids, Sieger said the funds would have to be more than double, since the Grand Rapids Public Schools have about 24,000 students as compared to about 10,000 in Kalamazoo’s schools.

“It would take about $550 million to endow such an effort to do the same thing in Grand Rapids,” she said.

Sieger said she does not see people moving into Kalamazoo in droves to take advantage of the benefit. And she prefers that the focus of support be on a school district itself.

“There’s a lot of energy around continuing to improve the school district,” she said of Grand Rapids. “I think there are a lot of things that we need to take a look at instead of an immediate reaction of ‘Oh, let’s do that here.’ ”

More than $1 million has already been invested in the Grand Rapids Public Schools from the Community Foundation in the past two years, supporting a variety of programs, Sieger said.

“There are some tangible monetary things that we’ve done,” she said.

One major change Sieger said she would like to see is more community support for the children — having them prepared to learn when they come to school, and getting the encouragement they need.

“There are a lot of things to consider in all of this,” she said. “We need to take a real solid look at how much of this we essentially could do, should do.”

Grand Rapids Public School Superintendent Bert Bleke said he has not had any donors come forward for a similar program in Grand Rapids, but that anything is possible.

Bleke praised the program as a “stroke of genius.”

“In one fell swoop they brought some hope to the kids and they revitalized the community in a way,” he said. “All of a sudden they changed the whole equation.”

Bleke said considering what else could be financed with the extensive funding is an interesting discussion. With the scholarships going directly to the students, it’s different than if funding were to go to the school district.

“The money goes directly to the kids and in a way that motivates the kids and motivates the system,” he said. “The hope is so powerful because so many of our kids don’t have a lot of hope because they don’t have a lot of resources. I think it’ll be fascinating to see how this plays out over the next five, 10 years.”

Jeanne Englehart, president of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce, said implementing a scholarship program would strengthen the vitality of the community.

“There are studies that show that there’s a strong correlation between academic achievement and a community’s economic well-being,” she said. “If you were to look at it from that perspective, you could certainly draw the conclusion that education is an important piece of the economic community.”

Englehart agreed with Sieger that in order to have a healthy school system, the district needs parental involvement.

“If the family isn’t engaged, then the student isn’t going to be successful because they’re not supported,” she said.

John Reifel, associate dean of the Seidman College of Business, agreed that a scholarship program would provide a boost to the area’s economy.

“Many of the central city school systems are really struggling with a whole array of factors that are working against them,” he said. “This would suddenly create a ray of hope.”

While encouraging students to achieve would be an immediate benefit, the long-term effects would also be felt.

“It would raise the quality of the work force in the area over time,” he said.

Students who return to the area after receiving the scholarship would be without student loans, which would change their economic situation.

“They could be using their earnings to do other things, buy other things,” he said.

Reifel said there is no guarantee that even with the scholarship students would return to their home town.

“We’re a really mobile county; just because you get the break there and they get the college education paid for, doesn’t mean they’re going to come back here,” he said.

However, Reifel said he has noticed a tendency for students raised in West Michigan to return.

“A lot of people here in West Michigan have a real alliance and love for the area.”

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