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Promise Zones and place-based scholarships are game changers for families in Grand Rapids

From left, Tuck, Tybee and Bodie Bickford and their mother Nancy Haynes.

If Grand Rapids becomes a Promise Zone, it would change the game for funding college in the River City. Currently in the process of applying for the designation, the city of GR is prioritizing affordable college education for all.
If there was one phrase that could be used to describe the possibility of Grand Rapids becoming a Promise Zone—a designation that allows the city to capture some property tax revenues and use them to help pay for college for Grand Rapids students— that phrase would be "game changer." Through talks with GRPS employees, families, and those who have already implemented Promise Zones around the state, it's clear that The Promise Zone and other college funding opportunities are game changers for students, families, and communities.

Nancy Haynes has three boys in Grand Rapids Public Schools. In a few years, her oldest will start college. Eventually, they will all be attending college at the same time. That's three college tuition payments...and one of her sons is considering the medical field. While her family probably won't qualify for a significant amount of federal aid, sending all three boys to school will be a significant burden on their finances. She and her husband have been saving, but she says it's been hard to save enough with tuition costs skyrocketing. Loans are, of course, an option, but Haynes knows how college debt can limit the choices her boys have after school, and she would rather they choose their paths based on their passions rather than their financials.

Nancy HaynesFor Haynes and her family, funding that would free her boys from the possibility of extreme debt would be a game changer for not only her family, but so many others. "For many," says John Helmholdt, Executive Director of Communications and External Affairs at GRPS, "the idea of taking on that much debt is unfathomable. The Promise Zone eliminates that burden and helps give them a leg up."

A Promise Zone is a place-based scholarship that depends on philanthropic donations for the first three years and then uses property tax revenues to pay for college scholarships in addition to funds from the federal Pell Grant, a subsidy the U.S. federal government provides for students who need it to pay for college that does not need to be repaid.

The scholarship would benefit any student within the Grand Rapids Public Schools district, but would also cover charter and private schools in the city. According to GRPS superintendent Teresa Weatheral-Neal, a Promise Zone designation could change the lives of thousands of children. According to their website, "Promise community leaders help pay for the scholarships with privately raised funds and donations of all sizes. Promise Zone Authorities solicit private donations to fund their scholarships and, beginning in their third year of operation, may qualify for state funds through a mechanism known as tax capture."

Bodie BickfordThere are already ten Promise Zones in place in Michigan and while Grand Rapids missed the first round of designations in 2006, according to Chuck Wilbur, Executive Director of the Michigan Promise Zones Association, Grand Rapids was considered in the original vision behind the Promise Zones. Because any zone becomes a tax increment finance district, any growth is captured and stays local to pay for the scholarship. There has to be growth for it to work. And, even though Grand Rapids is part of the second wave, Wilbur says they are coming online during a time when property values are growing and Grand Rapids would have a stronger tax capture than other parts of the state. In November 2017, Governor Snyder signed a bill expanding the number of Promise Zones in Michigan from 10 to 15 and Grand Rapids made the leap.

It's already clear that programs like this work and while the structure is different, The Promise Zone Designations were inspired by the successful implementation of the Kalamazoo Promise.

According to Wilbur, before Kalamazoo, there were two sets of camps in the scholarship world; merit-based and needs-based. Kalamazoo said, "there's a third way to do this." Their place-based scholarship ensured there was money available to every student regardless of economic status, class ranking, or family background. If a kid was struggling, he was still offered the chance to go to college. Their model inspired over 100 communities across the country.

Tuck BickfordTo qualify for the Kalamazoo Promise, students must reside in the boundaries of KPS and attend all of their high school years in that district. Rather than relying on tax captures, funding for the Kalamazoo Promise is all provided by anonymous donors (after students apply for the federal Pell Grant). Wilbur says that Kalamazoo shows that if you make the possibility of education ubiquitous in a community, you can change the economic fortunes of that community and, as proof, since the implementation of the scholarship in 2004, between 2005 and 2014, enrollment in Kalamazoo schools increased by almost 24 percent.

Wilbur wants to duplicate this success in other areas. "We don't want students thinking that [college] is not for them. We want them to survive and thrive in a world that demands education after high school."

Sometimes, though, money isn't the only barrier to a post-secondary education and success after high school. Challenge Scholars offers a way for families on Grand Rapids' West Side to pay for the costs of education after high school, but the program is much more than a scholarship, with their assistance offered long before students don a cap and gown. Funded by the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, the largest scholarship provider in Kent County, Challenge Scholars is a holistic approach for a particular population of kids.

Tybee BickfordChallenge Scholars' unique approach includes requirements for attendance and GPA, thus inspiring students to not only attend school, but to perform. The support given to students isn't only monetary, but has included (but isn't limited to) a reorganization of classroom structures, periods dedicated to working on areas in which they are struggling, and a Grand Rapids Community College presence in Union High School.

"In these schools," says Challenge Scholars program director, Cris Kutzli, "there is a college and career culture taking root. Students are talking about what they want to do and who they want to be." Through the program, they are getting support and guidance they may not get at home. This is especially important for those that may be first generation college students as those at home just don't know the right ways to offer support. "Factors that cause dropouts start in ninth grade, so we try to support them, help them feel connected, and position them for success."

To earn a scholarship that covers four years of college tuition at any public Michigan college or university, Challenge Scholars participants must sign up in sixth grade and remain enrolled in Harrison Park or Westwood for middle school, graduate from Union High School, maintain a 2.0 GPA or higher, and have a 95 percent attendance rate.

Because Challenge Scholars recognizes that every student is different and has their own path, they offer multiple paths for students that may struggle but are still hopeful about continuing their education. The requirements set by the scholarship and the possibility of college has given students the motivation they need, as demonstrated by the data. The percentage of students at Harrison Park who reported a desire to pursue post-secondary education rose from 59 percent in 2013-14 to 66 percent in 2016-17, and the percent of students in good standing increased over the previous school year for the classes of 2021 and 2022.

"We have a few years before we know how well it's working," says Kutzli, "but our early indicators have been positive. The students expectations for their future have continued to grow and we can say the same for parents; they have a strong belief that their kids can do whatever they put their minds to."

While the Challenge Scholars program is doing great things for its students, families like the Haynes family, who attend CA Frost Middle and High Schools, have to look elsewhere for help. "If Kalamazoo can find a way to help all children achieve their dream and the key to unlocking futures, we should be able to, too," she says.

While her boys have all expressed dreams of playing professional sports, her eldest's goal is to become an orthopedic surgeon. "We do what we can do but he'll have debt of his own if he wants to go to medical school," says Haynes.

Haynes values the fact that The Promise Zone would help all families in Grand Rapids. "When help is so limited, you want it to go to the people that need it, but there's a squeeze on a lot of families."

As an Executive Director at the Fair Housing Center of West Michigan, Haynes also sees the value of the scholarship from a professional standpoint. "We talk about creating neighborhoods and communities of opportunity and this is a great example of that. People will stay and want to move back into the city and people currently here will have so many more options...people invest back into a community when it feels hopeful."

At the moment, Grand Rapids is in a state of limbo as it relates to the possibility of a Promise Zone designation. Since the designation is on a first come, first served basis, four cities that have been on the waiting list since the first round will be given priority. But, it's unclear how many are actually still interested. At the moment, Grand Rapids doesn't know if they are approved or on a waiting list, but many are confident that Grand Rapids will make a great Promise Zone and that the designation would mean great things for the city.

Grand Rapids was once rated one of the country's most generous cities, which is a strong indicator that finding funding for the first years of the Promise won't be a challenge.

"We've seen remarkable interest in Grand Rapids schools," says Helmholdt, "our hope is to work with leaders and foundations in the city and utilize this to its maximum effect. It's as much an economic development tool as anything else and can help position Grand Rapids as the best mid sized city in America."

Helmholdt also feels that starting with education can help solve other problems facing communities.

"When you talk about the root issues facing communities, housing or employment, employability, all of those things are tied back to education. Students engaged in higher education, no matter what [type] it is, are more likely to succeed and have a successful career and life.  And this success comes back to the city or community in which that student lives and chooses to work."

This is one reason Bob Jorth of the Kalamazoo Promise team feels the scholarship easily acquired the appropriate donors in Kalamazoo. "The reason they chose to invest is their belief that the education of the population is a key indicator of the vitality of a community."

Given the effect a well-educated population can have on a city, it's no surprise that so many think the implementation of a Promise Zone in Grand Rapids could be a game changer.

In three to six months, Helmholdt says they will have a better idea if Grand Rapids will be able to secure one of the remaining Promise Zone spots. The designation relies heavily on legislative will, but Helmholdt says GRPS is well perceived and he thinks a lot of people will want to see this happen.

Charles Wilbur agrees. "Everything about GR excites me. Their leadership is clear-eyed and prepared to do work."

The college funding game has been the same for many, many years. And, the game doesn't always end well. According to findings from Brookings, trends suggest that nearly 40 percent of college graduates may default on their student loans by 2023. The problem gets bigger for minorities. The same article shows that debt and default among black college students is at crisis levels, and even a bachelor’s degree is no guarantee of security: black BA graduates default at five times the rate of white BA graduates (21 versus 4 percent), and are more likely to default than white dropouts.

When the game continues to end badly, it's time to change your strategy. From game changers like Challenge Scholars to Promise Zones, it's clear that Grand Rapids is trying to do just that.

This article is part of Michigan Nightlight, a series of stories about the programs and people that positively impact the lives of Michigan kids. It is made possible with funding from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Read more in the series here.

Photos by Adam Bird of Bird + Bird Studio.
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