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JOHN YDSTIE, host:

A bold experiment in southwestern Michigan is filling public school classrooms and reshaping a community. The Kalamazoo Promise is an offer made to high school seniors by anonymous donors to help pay college tuition, but there's one string attached - students must live in Kalamazoo.

Kaomi Goetz of Michigan Radio reports.

KAOMI GOETZ: Denise Singson is getting help tonight from her two sons Kavegga(ph) and Isaiah(ph) as they set the dinner table.

Unidentified Child: Thank you.

(Soundbite of dishes)

Ms. DENISE SINGSON: Here, we'll give you those ones.

(Soundbite of dishes)

GOETZ: Last July, Singson and her children moved here from Honolulu, where they live in a modest and tidy apartment. The 39-year-old single mother and Toronto native says she was looking for somewhere more affordable to live.

Ms. SINGSON: Actually, my mother saw an article in the Honolulu advertiser in the newspaper, and we were considering a move back this way and she said, I know where you need to move; you need to move to Kalamazoo.

GOETZ: Singson's mother had read about the Kalamazoo Promise, an ambitious scholarship program announced about a year ago. Anonymous donors are offering to pay college tuition at any Michigan university or community college for four years. Recipients only need to graduate in good standing from Kalamazoo public schools and live within the district.

Ms. SINGSON: It seemed too good to be true that people, you know, would put forth monies for the kids' education. So that's why I had to look into it a little bit further.

GOETZ: The Promise is giving a significant economic boost to this medium-sized Michigan town that suffered the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs and the recent downsizing of drug manufacturer Pfizer.

The Promise is also helping a struggling urban school district. This fall, the district's classrooms have surged by nearly a thousand new students. Kalamazoo Promise administrator Robert Jorth says the only explanation is the scholarship.

Mr. ROBERT JORTH (Administrator, Kalamazoo Promise): The enrollment has been declining for seven years. In every district surrounding us with maybe one exception has declining enrollment this year, and there is no reason that we should not be joining that group other than that we have the Promise.

GOETZ: The jump in enrollment has created more than 30 teaching positions in the district. Robert Jorth says his phone continues to ring off the hook.

Mr. JORTH: I get calls every day from families who are interested in moving. I found 30 different states represented in the new students in KPS in almost - it was close to 65 different Michigan communities.

GOETZ: While local economists say it's too soon to chart the economic effect of the Promise, there are already positive signs. Realtors here say home sales are up six percent this year with a seven percent average jump in price.

One quirk of the program is that the donors are still anonymous, though speculation focuses on heirs to local medical and pharmaceutical fortunes. Economists say a program of this kind would need an endowment of several hundred million dollars.

(Soundbite of marching band)

GOETZ: In a parking lot on Western Michigan University's campus, marching band students practice in groups by instrument. Eighteen-year-old freshman Edward Callahan(ph) is concentrating on his drum.

(Soundbite of drum)

GOETZ: Callahan is one of the first students to receive the Kalamazoo Promise. He says the freedom from school loans allows him to concentrate on academics.

Mr. EDWARD CALLAHAN (Freshman, Western Michigan University): Oh, yeah, no doubt. It makes me just want to focus harder and just show that the Promise really is helpful and is working and that it's just keeping me on track.

GOETZ: And Western Michigan University has sweetened the deal. They're offering free room and board to anyone who enrolls because of the Promise scholarship.

For NPR News, I'm Kaomi Goetz in Grand Rapids.

(Soundbite of drum)

YDSTIE: Qualifications and more details of Kalamazoo's scholarship program are at npr.org.

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