Marietta could benefit by copying Kalamazoo
by Stuart Fleming
July 21, 2013 12:06 AM | 1255 views | 0 0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Stuart Fleming
Stuart Fleming
In coming months Marietta will spend considerable time debating the challenges and opportunities that redevelopment on Franklin Road brings. It’s a debate I support. But the bond must be but one piece of a greater puzzle if we’re to achieve a sizable impact on our schools and our city.

If portions of Franklin Road were razed, it would impact our schools, but more moderately than expected. I predict modest growth (4-9 percent) of graduation rates. If your parents were like mine, improving my test scores from a 61 percent (Marietta High School’s graduation percentage, per new guidelines) to 70 percent was not seen as making headlines around our dinner table.

Despite the relentless efforts of our schools, we’re losing the battle to attract families to Marietta. It’s not that Marietta doesn’t have some of the brightest minds attending some of the most elite institutions across America. We do. We simply don’t have enough of them, and their successes continue to be overshadowed by the almost 4 out of every 10 students who come and go from our system — without graduating.

We spend $70 million per year to educate our students, but reaching these families and children is not easy. Across this country more than 5,000 students drop out every day of the academic calendar.

It’s important to remember that Franklin Road isn’t the problem, nor low income housing per se. Instead, it’s the transiency of the population that cripples the effectiveness of our tax dollars and negatively impacts our schools. It’s well documented that we spend, proportionately, more money on students who come and go than those who stay.

But that misses the point. The point is Marietta’s graduation rate limits the ability to attract and retain the best students and families — they simply choose other communities or find ways to fund private school. I believe it’s time to get creative, or simply throw up our hands — which I’m unwilling to do.

In Kalamazoo, Mich., they are getting creative. They’ve created the Kalamazoo Promise, which seeks to further the education of public school students beyond high school, in part by incentivizing stabilization. Using private money, Kalamazoo incentivizes families with college scholarships to maintain residency within the city limits. If a student is enrolled K-12, then a full scholarship is provided to any number of institutions — from the local technical school to the University of Michigan.

Started in 2005, the results are bearing fruit. Families are staying in the school system for longer periods, per-pupil cost is reduced, graduation rates go up and people are migrating to a community that offers them something no one else does.

Of course some of these students will depart for Chicago, Indianapolis, Detroit and other places. But a great number will return, ready to contribute in a more meaningful way than before. They will add to the tax base rather than drain it.

This year, over 95 percent of Kalamazoo’s graduating seniors will further their education and training because of these efforts. 1,200 students will benefit at a cost of $10 million. That’s far less investment with a much greater return than anything we’ve considered to date.

The Kalamazoo Promise is not a silver bullet, but it’s an amazing step the community has undertaken. So amazing that the president, vice president, and secretary of Education all found time to visit. There is even an event this fall welcoming cities and schools to Kalamazoo to see how to apply their learnings. I hope someone from Marietta and our schools will attend.

I support the bond. But no one should be fooled —the bond alone will not dramatically impact what I consider the biggest asset of almost every community — the quality of its public education. We must address transiency by creating positive forces that draw people in rather than just pushing them out.

I think Marietta has a great story to tell, but the time has come for us all to step up. District leaders are working to create a community-wide campaign named Graduate Marietta! But that can only be successful if we all realize the role we play. If we work together as a community, I am confident we are up to the challenge and we can successfully stabilize our community, increase our graduation rates, and attract more families to Marietta.

J. Stuart Fleming is a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy and Cambridge University. He serves on the Marietta City School Board.
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