Donors Give Kalamazoo, Mich., Students a Shot at College

Over the last five years, Kalamazoo, Mich., has lost 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs. But now, many hope new life will be added to the fading town. For the next 12 years, anonymous donors are giving full college scholarships to students who maintain C averages. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

There's a lot of thanks being given in Kalamazoo, Michigan. For the next 12 years, every senior graduating from one of Kalamazoo's schools with at least a C average will get a full college scholarship, given by anonymous donors. Michigan Radio's Tracy Samilton reports this is great news for a community that's seen some hard times.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Woman #1: Good morning. Thank you for coming.

Unidentified Woman #2: Good morning. Yeah.

TRACY SAMILTON reporting:

A cold, steady drizzle is falling on Kalamazoo, but it's having no effect on the people filling the Community Center auditorium for a celebration of the news. They are all beaming. Joy has come to Kalamazoo.

(Soundbite of drum corps performance)

SAMILTON: As the Loy Norrix High School drumline opens the ceremony, the disbelief is fading, but the euphoria is not.

Ms. JENNY HILL(ph): We were so excited, and I think--well, our 10th-grader was, like, `OK, I get it, I get it! I'm going to college for free!'

SAMILTON: That's Jenny Hill, all smiles when her daughter vows to work twice as hard on her grades. Laurie and Todd Drillak(ph) say they now think the University of Michigan is possible for their 10th-grader, Athalie(ph). Before, prospects for the money to send her and their other child to college were dim.

Mrs. LAURIE DRILLAK: Not real good.

Mr. TODD DRILLAK: I think we really relied on going through all the scholarships and filling out all the forms and going through all the hoops to get as much financial aid, possibly, you know, for the university she wants to attend.

SAMILTON: Everyone in the next 12 graduating classes is eligible, from the 25 percent of students who live in poverty to the children of PhDs. Transferring students get partial scholarships. Yolanda Powell's(ph) eldest daughter is in community college, but she has no money to help her next two, including fifth-grader Darien(ph), who didn't want to go to college. Now...

Ms. YOLANDA POWELL: He will be going somewhere (laughs). He's going to--he will be going somewhere in Michigan.

SAMILTON: Once Kalamazoo had big money, from paper mills and pharmaceutical companies. But it's lost 20 percent of its manufacturing jobs in just five years. Many parents say they feel vindicated by their decision to stick with the city when friends told them they were crazy to stay. Still, it won't be easy to keep the promise for the students growing up in poverty. Superintendent Janice Brown says she wants 100 percent of her students to qualify for the scholarship, which requires a C average.

Ms. JANICE BROWN (School Superintendent): We understand that we have to continue to put the support systems in place for us to do that work.

SAMILTON: Many people think the Kalamazoo promise will revitalize the whole city. Although it's far too soon to know whether that will happen, already some local dealers say they've sold new cars to parents flush with college savings. Here at the celebration, real estate agents like Kathy King(ph) are gathering armfuls of the newly created yard signs that say `College Tuition Qualified' before heading back to the office.

Ms. KATHY KING (Real Estate Agent): I have three listings just near here. I'm putting them all up on my way there.

SAMILTON: The city is buzzing with speculation about the donors' identities. Perhaps it's local wealthy families. The cost of sending thousands of children to college is likely to reach at least $200 million. But Laurie Drillak says it isn't important who the donors are; she's just grateful.

Mrs. DRILLAK: You guys are awesome. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

SAMILTON: Twenty-nine new students have enrolled in Kalamazoo public schools since the promise was made, and the city is making new plans for the future, a future no one dreamed of just a short time ago. For NPR News, I'm Tracy Samilton.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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