Back in November 2005, when this year’s graduates were in sixth grade, the superintendent of Kalamazoo’s public schools, Janice M. Brown, shocked the community by announcing that unnamed donors were pledging to pay the tuition at Michigan’s public colleges, universities and community colleges for every student who graduated from the district’s high schools. All of a sudden, students who had little hope of higher education saw college in their future. Called the Kalamazoo Promise, the program — blind to family income levels, to pupils’ grades and even to disciplinary and criminal records — would be the most inclusive, most generous scholarship program in America.
According to census data, 39 percent of Kalamazoo’s students are white, and 44 percent are African-American. One of every three students in the Kalamazoo district falls below the national poverty level. One in 12 is homeless. Many of them are the first in their families to finish high school; many come from single-parent homes. Some are young parents themselves: Kalamazoo has one of the highest pregnancy rates among black teenagers in the state.