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State effort to replicate Promise yields mixed results

The Kalamazoo Promise has inspired 10 Michigan communities to develop college promises of their own -- without relying on a few generous benefactors to underwrite the whole thing.

The communities, mostly distressed urban areas, are creating Promise Zones, with the goal of promising all high school graduates living within the school district boundaries financial support to attend college. Three Promise Zones -- in Benton Harbor, Pontiac and Baldwin -- already are writing checks. And several others expect to begin helping students in the class of 2012, possibly including Detroit.

"I am 100 percent confident that a lot of the students would not be financially able to go to college without the Promise," said Ayana Richardson, Baldwin's Promise Zone coordinator. "The majority are first-generation students who don't have the support that is needed in their homes in order for them to get there. The Promise Zone gave them the push to say, 'OK, maybe I can go to college because at least I will have the money to go.'"

The idea for Promise Zones germinated after the stunning announcement of the Kalamazoo Promise in November 2005. Then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm and her education adviser. Chuck Wilbur, were working to understand its implications.

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Wilbur said they first viewed the Kalamazoo Promise as an elaborate and grand scholarship program, but came to realize its potential as a strategy for transforming distressed cities.

"It's been very difficult to develop urban policies in Michigan that can start to reverse some of the outflows of capital and people away from core urban areas, said Wilbur, now a senior policy consultant at Public Policy Associates Inc. in Lansing who is leading the effort to develop the promise zones. "There was at least a suggestion in Kalamazoo that they were making the river run uphill, when you contrast it with the rest of our urban experience."

The Promise Zones are an initiative that seeks to replicate in some fashion the Kalamazoo Promise in other cities. The plan was developed in 2006, but put off until after Granholm's re-election to prevent it from becoming buried by politics.Even so, it still took nearly two years to win legislative approval for 10 promise zones across the state.

The creation of promise zones depends on community partnerships and successful fund-raising campaigns to get the programs started. Ultimately, these programs will rely on a funding stream through tax increment financing.

The costs are substantially less than one might think, because the Promise Zone provides resources only after other financial aid, such as federal Pell Grants and Tuition Incentive Program grants, are exhausted. Because of the high poverty in the promise zone communities, many students are eligible for hefty Pell grants.

Each community develops its own promise. Baldwin, the smallest district involved and first to launch a program in 2010, promises to cover up to $5,000 a semester for four years of college.

Benton Harbor, which began this year, has a more limited promise of two years' community college tuition, after raising about $168,000 to get started. "We are hoping to expand in the years to come, but we wanted to start with two years and advance our way," said Promise Zone coordinator Dionne Bowens.

Other areas designated by the state promise zone legislation are Detroit, Battle Creek, Hazel Park, Jackson, Lansing, Muskegon and Saginaw. (For more information on the program, go to

Central to the Promise Zone concept is the universality of the commitment to all students, rather than narrowing it through restrictions based on finances, grade point or other factors, said Michelle Miller-Adams, a visiting scholar at the W.E. Upjohn Institute in Kalamazoo.

"Michigan is a real leader in this area, particularly with the universal model that everybody can go somewhere," she said. "It's so important because what you are trying to achieve is cultural change in the schools and economic change in communities. Having a program that is just for good students won't get you that far."

In Baldwin, 15 of the 23 graduates in the class of 2010 went on to college. Its first-year results were a sober reminder that raising money is just part of the equation. And only 10 of the 15 were still in college a year later.

In Benton Harbor, 20 of the 102 students attending community college had withdrawn in the first few months.

Bowens said Benton Harbor students left school for a variety of social and academic reasons. Some were unprepared, she said, because they had been "pushed through high school" and didn't know what to expect in college. Others had trouble with housing and other issues.

"I was really taken by the 20 that didn't get through the first semester, but I'm helping them come up with an education plan that is more feasible and convenient to their needs," she said. "Overall, our Promise Board and I are really pleased with where we are, but we are focusing on those students who didn't have a plan."

Wilbur said the promise zones empower more students to go to college, and that those who are less prepared need more assistance from the institutions they attend. "Getting kids to college is only part of the battle," he said. "Being able to give them the support they need to succeed once they get there is the other part."

The development of the Detroit Promise Zone has been slower than for some others, in part because of its sheer size. But the effort received a shot in the arm earlier this year from Gov. Rick Snyder, who called for a Detroit Promise in a major address on education.

"What you've got going in Detroit is Snyder's fundraiser-in-chief commitment. That is nothing to sneeze at," said Wilbur, noting the Republican governor's close ties to the business community. Wilbur expects the Detroit Promise initiative to develop in connection with other scholarship programs, such as the Detroit Compact and Wade McCree scholarships.

"He has a message that says we can do something really unique here," Wilbur said. "I would not bet against the Detroit Promise."

Editor's note: Chris Andrews is a senior editor at Public Policy Associates, which is providing consulting services for the Promise Zones.

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