NOTIONS: Dear philanthropist: Make me a daydream believer

September 18, 2006

Last month, I picked up my boys in Fort Wayne, drove north on Interstate 69, hooked a left at Interstate 94, and got off at the Portage, Mich., exit. There, we whiled away the weekend at a family reunion. The grownups ate too much, caught up on gossip and puttered around the lake in the speedboat. The teenagers, whom we rarely saw, did X-Box battle in the basement.

On Sunday, after the kids had surfaced for lunch and the grandparents had headed for home, Austin, Zach and I drove north to Kalamazoo to call on my paternal aunt.

As we turned onto Paddington Road and headed east on the quiet tree-lined street I've known since childhood, we spied a few homes for sale. The bungalows looked appealing in their own right, but next to each real-estate marker was something even more enticing: A second yard sign with a red, white and blue Kalamazoo Public Schools logo at the top and the words "College Tuition Qualified" below.

As a soon-to-be-paying-through-thenose parent of twin sons a year away from college (and a parent who's recently visited esteemed institutions fraught with fivefigure sticker shock), any sign touting potential tuition savings can cause sudden and excess salivation.

So I asked the relatives what these signs meant. And they told me about "The Kalamazoo Promise."

To hear them tell it, the Kalamazoo Public Schools were, until very recently, a lot like the Indianapolis Public Schools (and many other urban school districts, for that matter): years of declining enrollments, troubling test scores, too-high dropout rates, and beaucoup behavior and attendance problems.

Then, last November, the school system announced something stunning: Some anonymous donor or donors had stepped up in a mega-way, promising that every KPS graduate meeting certain residency and enrollment requirements could receive up to a 100-percent scholarship for tuition and mandatory fees at any public university or community college in Michigan.

And The Promise isn't some short-term shot-in-the-arm, either. It's intended to be forever.

While students are certainly the biggest beneficiaries of this philanthropic phenomenon, there are ulterior motives, as well: like more qualified knowledge workers for Kalamazoo employers and higher real estate values for city homeowners.

On the latter point, the relatives pointed me to that morning's Kalamazoo Gazette, which was lying on the coffee table.

"The home-sales market in the Kalamazoo Public Schools district is outperforming the region for the first time in five years," the paper reported. "While the region's residential sales dropped 4.3 percent for the 12 months ending July 31 compared to the previous year, sales of homes in the KPS district increased 5.9 percent."

"Meanwhile," said the Gazette, "the average home price in KPS increased 5 percent in the past 12 months, compared to a regional increase of 3 percent, [and] the median price ... increased 6 percent in KPS compared to 1 percent regionwide."

The following week, the Gazette reported even more good news.

"This week will mark the start of a school year for a district making a remarkable ascent," said a Sunday editorial, "with increased enrollment, improved test scores, lowered dropout rates, fewer behavioral problems and better attendance."

"The Kalamazoo Promise is the start of a new direction for Kalamazoo, its students and the community," the paper said.

A quick Google search revealed that newspapers, magazines and broadcast outlets across the country had picked up The Promise story and its promising early results.

And all this got me dreaming.

I dreamt that some generous individual or corporation or foundation replicated the Kalamazoo Promise in Indianapolis and every other Hoosier city starved for an educational and economic advantage over its suburbs.

I dreamt that these donors were so dedicated to the cause of education and economic development that they traded the usual, hard-to-measure, spread-it-too-thin peanut-butter philanthropy for one massive, measurable, millennial benefit.

I dreamt that these donors were so steeped in the true spirit of philanthropy that they sought no recognition whatsoever in return for their remarkable investment.

I dreamt that, as a result of this generosity, homes in the Indianapolis Public Schools district outsold those in Fishers, Carmel and Greenwood.

I dreamt that increased property values in Center Township drove revitalized development on thousands of abandoned urban lots.

I dreamt that faculty members at Purdue, IU, Ball State, Ivy Tech and all the rest hailed a new crop of well-qualified students from the heart of our city.

I dreamt that those graduates returned home to Indianapolis to fill much-needed roles in our burgeoning, knowledge-based economy.

And I dreamt that scores of companies chose to grow and expand here because they wanted their businesses and their employees' children to reap the benefits of The Indianapolis Promise.

And then, like Dorothy awakening in a Kansas farmhouse, I realized that it was all in my head.

But hey, a boy can dream, can't he?

Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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