Second Opinion: A community weighs how to keep a promise

There is making a promise and then there is keeping a promise.

The Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo -- a new group introduced to the community June 14 -- has come together to find ways to build a community dedicated to education; one that recognizes its prosperity and that of its residents depends upon their education.

And the theme is not about improving education for just a few, but for every child.
With that goal, $11 million has been committed toward achieving it. The Kalamazoo Community Foundation board of directors has committed $5 million over five years and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has awarded $6 million over three years.

The work is expected to cost $60 million as new programs and processes develop to achieve an education-centered community.

Members of the Learning Network gathered in a press conference at the Kalamazoo Public Library before more than 200 people to discuss the initiative. They emphasized that much of what needs to be done builds on what has already been accomplished in the town that is becoming known for The Kalamazoo Promise -- a scholarship program that pays college tuition and fees for all graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools who go on to Michigan public colleges or universities.

The next step is making sure all students are ready to get the most out of that opportunity. 

Programs to promote literacy and community engagement are two ways the Learning Network aims to bring that about, says Juan Olivarez, CEO of the Kalamazoo Community Foundation.
"Literacy -- we all believe that it's the foundation of all the success of our children, of our families, and the prosperity of our community," Olivarez says. He says community engagement is needed because "schools can't do it alone."

The Learning Network will provide a framework for programs that promote increased readiness for school among all youngsters, improved student performance which prepare people for meaningful careers.

School superintendents are doing the best they can, but "it takes the entire community," Olivarez says. "Education is the key to this community, to every community in this country."

The work will build on the community's past, what is going on presently and what people see in the future and Olivarez says it is in keeping with the community's tradition of finding solutions in the face of adversity.

Money dedicated to the initiative will go toward innovative programs that improve education and "engage families, neighborhoods, schools, governments and business in projects." Through programs action will take place.

"It's all about action -- not seven partners sitting around a table, talking and talking and talking," Olivarez says. "It's about every child. We have to care about every child, especially those in poverty who may not have the opportunities or the abilities of others. We have to rally around all of our children, not just some."

Programs for parents of newborns, for 3 and 4 year olds and family literacy already have been identified as those that will be supported. Other programs for which funding is being sought are preschool, summer literacy, and literacy in after-school programs.

Sheri Welsh, representing local businesses, says the growth of the business community is inextricably linked to education. "Our community cannot and will not thrive without a highly educated work force."

Kalamazoo Public Schools Superintendent Michael Rice says that as exciting as the initiative is -- and he called it " a wonderful day for kids" -- it is no substitute for stable, adequate funding on the state level.

And in one of the moving moments of the morning, Lori Mercedes, of the Hispanic American Council says this initiative was one of the first times the Hispanic Community has gotten the message "loud and clear" that it is being included.

There has been a disconnect between members of the Hispanic Community and services that have left them feeling excluded, she says. Now there will be a strong, aggressive push to save the children of the community who are being lost.

"We are going to take back our streets and take back our children," Mercedes says. "Cada nino. Lada opportunidad, Cada vez. (Every child. Every opportunity. Every time.)"
As one member of the Learning Network put it, we know that it takes a village to raise a child, but is the village willing to raise a child?

The call to action to the community was clear. The entire community is being asked to embrace education, to let each child know they are important. What can you do to make sure Kalamazoo becomes known for keeping its promises to its children? Readers thoughts are always welcome.

Kathy Jennings is the Managing Editor of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave and a freelance writer and editor.

A crowd gathered at the Kalamazoo Public Library to learn about the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo.

Dr. Charles Warfield, president of the Metropolitan Kalamazoo Branch of the NAACP, said he was an example of what can happen when a community embraces its young people.

Randall Eberts, president of the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said networks have proven to be an effective way to bring about change.

Sheri Welsh, past chairwoman of the Kalamazoo Regional Chamber of Commerce, told the group that those with bachelors degrees now have an unemployment rate of 4.5 percent while those without higher education are unemployed at a rate of 10.2 percent.

Bobby Hopewell, mayor of Kalamazoo, introduced the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo.

Photos provided by the Learning Network of Greater Kalamazoo.

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