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YS Promise moves ahead

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What if someone told you that if your child goes through the Yellow Springs Schools, he or she will be eligible to receive a scholarship to attend college? Wouldn’t you want to move here and send your kids to school here? That’s the Yellow Springs Promise in a nutshell. The devil, of course, is in the details. And the details are what school board member Sean Creighton and the YS Promise Committee he chairs have been wrestling with ever since they were charged in July with investigating the idea.

The committee is comprised of Jaime Adoff, Lori Askeland, Tom Biggs, Marilyn Dowdell, David Heckler, Matt Housh, Alice Earl Jenkins, Kathy Johns, Lori Kuhn, Debra Mabra, Rachel McKinley, Aida Merhemic, Janet Mueller and Jane Scott. They were formed after an exploratory group of Morgan Family Foundation Executive Director Kuhn, school board members Merhemic and Richard Lapedes, and Yellow Springs Community Foundation trustee and Grants Review Committee Chair Scott returned from Kalamazoo, Mich., the place where the idea had its birth.

The first program of this kind, the Kalamazoo Promise, is in its third year and provides up to 100 percent of tuition for the city’s high school graduates to attend state institutions in their state. The program, which was funded with $300 million from anonymous donors, aims to attract new residents and improve the economy of that city, which lost jobs and population due to the declining automotive industry. The program also promises the benefits of increased high school graduation rates, college success, and community economic vitality, organizers say.

In a recent interview, Creighton was quick to point out that Yellow Springs will never have that kind of funding.

A local program may aim for more modest goals, similar to a program in Maine created by the Alfond Foundation, Lapedes said upon his return from Michigan. That program provides a grant of money to all children born in the state at the time of their birth, in anticipation that the fund will grow for 18 years and then contribute toward funding a college education. If family members set up a 529 college savings plan for the child at birth, the fund also provides a matching amount.

“The Maine approach shows there are surgical ways to do this,” Lapedes said. “Also, here in Yellow Springs we don’t want to be much bigger, but this may help to stabilize the family population in Yellow Springs and ultimately stimulate economic growth.”

Lapedes first heard about the Kalamazoo Promise from an article in the Wall Street Journal. He approached Kuhn and Yellow Springs Community Foundation President Bruce Bradtmiller and they discussed it over lunch a few times, before Kuhn went to her board to determine if they would be interested in such a project.

Shortly thereafter, Kalamazoo decided to share its experiences with like-minded communities by holding what they called a PromiseNet Conference. “Come hear what people like yourselves are doing to strengthen their community’s economic vitality by investing in education,” the flyer for the June 25–27 conference offered.

Before the conference, Kuhn and Bradtmiller went before the school board with a draft proposal of the Yellow Springs Promise. Kuhn had received approval from the Morgan Family Foundation trustees to look into it further. They sought the board’s support in putting together a committee of community stakeholders to explore the matter further.

The Yellow Springs representatives to the PromiseNet Conference, all of whom attended at their own expense, returned full of enthusiasm. According to Lapedes, representatives from 50–75 cities attended, and Yellow Springs was the smallest school system there.

Upon returning, the four attendees met with Creighton. Once they brought him up to speed, he started to form the committee that met a total of 10 times before Thanksgiving. Soon, they will make a recommendation to the school board and the community on the Yellow Springs Promise, its purposes, goals, a model, funding, and next steps. The rather large committee reflects organizers’ desire to include diversity of many kinds, including a diversity of skill sets.

The first item considered by the committee was the organizing process. Fortunately, committee members were provided with guidance in the form of a binder full of materials from the PromiseNet Conference, including contributions from programs inspired by Kalamazoo that are underway in Pittsburgh, Denver and El Dorado, Ark.

“The materials suggest focusing questions in eight key areas,” Creighton said. “How to get started; what organizations will be affiliated; what will be the economic development impact; how to fund it; who will administer the program; how the scholarships will be structured; what additional student support will be necessary; and how to evaluate the program’s impact.”

According to Creighton, Kalamazoo still has a way to go before it can evaluate the impact of the Kalamazoo Promise on the community. It will need another year or two to get meaningful student data. Meanwhile, the YS Promise Committee is trying to gather data of its own. They would like to know such things as the breakdown of Yellow Springs High School graduates going to public versus private institutions, two-year versus four-year colleges, and how many students complete a four-year degree.

The YS Promise committee was divided up into three teams, with each team discussing in-depth the “focus questions” for assigned subject areas. Then, all teams report out to the full group for further discussion and feedback. According to Creighton, one goal is to create a one-page overview of the committee’s conclusions for community review and feedback. Another goal is to provide a recommendation of next steps.

Generally, the committee meets twice per month. Currently, committee members are considering what Creighton deems to be the most important issues, which are funding the program and deciding which entity will oversee it. The committee is also wrestling with whether the program should be limited to residents, or to public school kids, and what kinds of post-secondary schools the program would apply to.

“Nothing has been decided, yet,” Creighton said.

If the committee recommends going ahead with some form of a Yellow Springs Promise, another committee will be formed to take responsibility for implementing the program, he said.


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