A more promising future begins for grads of city schools

School board approves GRPS Promise Zone Authority

Graduates of public and private schools in Grand Rapids, such as these graduates of City High School, will be able to receive full-tuition scholarships to Michigan colleges and/or universities in the newly established GRPS Promise Zone (photo courtesy of Grand Rapids Public Schools)

If the experience of other school districts around the state is any indication, the city of Grand Rapids as well as its students will get a major lift from the Grand Rapids Public Schools Promise Zone.

So says a leader who helps establish Promise Zones around the state, as GRPS now begins the process to help fund the post-high school education of graduates from city schools. Leaders who have embraced the opportunities have seen their zones make “a huge difference” for students and communities alike, said Chuck Wilbur, executive director of the Michigan Promise Zones Association.

“I meet regularly with Promise leaders from across the state,” said Wilbur, who as a member of Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration helped pass legislation 10 years ago to create state-authorized zones. “To a person they are totally convinced this is making a difference in their communities — both the community itself, its vitality and vibrancy, and making a difference for students.”

Close to 10,000 students have received scholarships from 10 state-authorized Promise Zones, Wilbur said. That’s in addition to the nearly 5,000 students who have qualified to receive them from The Kalamazoo Promise, a privately funded initiative established in 2005 to provide its graduates full-tuition scholarships to Michigan colleges and universities.

‘I’m pretty confident the community will answer the call to do what it feels is best for these kids.’ – GRPS Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal

GRPS graduates, as well as those from private and charter schools within the city of Grand Rapids, will also qualify for scholarships now that the Board of Education voted Monday night, Sept. 17 to establish a Promise Zone Authority. Zone authority members will be appointed by the district and state to establish a plan, including the scope of scholarship awards, and begin the hard work of raising community dollars to fund them.

Promises Fulfilled

Ten school districts or government entities have established Promise Zones under state law and are awarding college scholarships to their graduates. The privately funded Kalamazoo Promise was established in 2005 prior to legislation enabling other areas to apply. Click on each zone to learn more about what it provides for its students.

Source: Michigan Promise Zones Association

‘Change Generations to come’

Superintendent Teresa Weatherall Neal calls it an unprecedented citywide effort that will pay big dividends for all the city’s children, be they public, private or charter students.

“This is really just a game-changer for the city of Grand Rapids to come together under one umbrella around our children,” Neal said. “All of our school districts are working really hard, pre-K through high school, and now we can say we that we’re going to do this for kids beyond (K-12). It literally could change generations to come.”

Grand Rapids Mayor Rosalynn Bliss hails the effort as a boon to the city’s continuing growth and vitality.

“This is an invaluable tool as we continuously work to improve the quality of life for the youngest of our residents today and well into the future,” Bliss said. “It also aligns with our commitment to being a great city for families.

“It is critically important that young people in our city have access to this transformational opportunity. I look forward to working with Grand Rapids Public Schools and our public and private partners to ensure we are a Promise Zone community.”

Learning from Others

Neal said she will look to all sectors of the community for potential board members, including private-school and business leaders. She also planned to begin meeting with leaders of Promise Zone school districts at a superintendents’ conference this week, “to learn from other communities what to do and what not to do.”

As for raising the needed funds for the scholarships, Neal said she is not worried about whether Grand Rapids will step up.

“I’m pretty confident the community will answer the call to do what it feels is best for these kids,” she said. “That has not been a problem in Grand Rapids. People believe in education. They also believe in coming together around children.”

In the third year the GRPS Promise Zone will be able to capture funds from the growth in its six-mill education property tax. With the city prospering and largely recovered from a major recession, that should provide the boost originally envisioned by state law, Wilbur said: “Grand Rapids is coming on board at a time when it all ought to work the way it was intended to work.”

CONNECT

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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