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Hosting the President: A Conversation with Kalamazoo Principal Von Washington

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Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Michigan made news when it beat out thousands of other schools for the honor of hosting President Obama as its commencement speaker. The President will speak before the school's 2010 graduates today.

His audience will include scores of students whose lives have been transformed by a stunning promise: free tuition at any public university in the state. At a time when many towns in Michigan are losing people, the "Kalamazoo Promise" has drawn a flood of new families into the city and the school system.

We recently spoke with Von Washington, the principal of the high school, about the President's visit and what it means for the school. Buoyed by the Promise, students have been streaming into AP classes and graduating in higher numbers.

Their passion, academic focus and hope for the future come through loud and clear in a video they created to make their case to the President. It clearly hit home.

Public School Insights: Kalamazoo Central High School recently received a big honor. You won the Race to the Commencement. As a result, President Obama is going to give your commencement address. What do you think set Kalamazoo Central apart from all of the other schools that tried to get the same honor?

Washington: It is really tough to tell. We are not entirely sure. But there are a couple of things that are distinct about us. One is that in the video presentation we really believe the students, through their words and their passion, gave a good idea to those viewing the video of what it means to go to school at Kalamazoo Central High School and what it means to be serious about your education.

Second, we are not a school that, by any means, has arrived. But we are a school, and a school district, definitely on an incline. We are reaching towards the sky, and we are moving towards our goals. And because it can appear that education is kind of in the doldrums financially and/or in achievement, I think that people recognize that if you are on the rise, then you may be doing some things the right way.

I can point directly to our increase in Advanced Placement courses. It is my third year here as principal of Kalamazoo Central. Our superintendent has been here as many years. The increase in Advanced Placement has been a district move. What we have done at the school level is really engage our counseling staff and our teaching staff in trying to push many of our students—the students who may seem to be marginal at times and who typically would not get the push to go into AP courses—to increase the rigor of their schedule and challenge themselves. In doing so we went from 150 students in Advanced Placement courses my first year to now, in our schedule for next year, 614 students taking Advanced Placement courses. And as a school that is 56% African-American… Any time that we have an increase that large, it means that there are students who may not have challenged themselves before who are challenging themselves now. So those are great numbers for us.

We also have what is called the “Kalamazoo Promise” here in Kalamazoo, Michigan. A group of private donors came together and funded a scholarship for every graduating senior from Kalamazoo Public Schools. We have three high schools. All you need to do to receive a scholarship is graduate from one of those high schools, with a couple of small stipulations. You have to live in the city of Kalamazoo proper. You have to go to a Kalamazoo public school, and you have to have gone to the Kalamazoo public school for four years consecutively. That would be grades 9 to 12—I do not want anybody thinking that they could go third grade through such and such, leave, graduate, come back and all of a sudden be in the money.

And the scholarship is prorated. So if I went to school grades 9 through 12 in Kalamazoo Public Schools and graduate—and I met the other criteria of living in the city and so on—I will get a 60% scholarship. If I am here my whole K-12 experience, I will get 100% tuition and fees paid to any Michigan public college or university.

Public School Insights: What is the impact of that on a school like Kalamazoo Central?

Washington: We believe that it really has increased the focus of our students. Many students had a financial barrier to college, but there is not a barrier any longer. So that helps with students who may not have been focused on receiving a quality education and who had other distractions.

For students who were already meeting the challenge and working at a high skill level, it allowed them to change the school that they could go to. For example, there were many students who were graduating the first year the Kalamazoo Promise was announced who may have been going to a certain school because they were going to have to work—take a part-time job, live at home, so on and so forth. Then all of a sudden, the Kalamazoo Promise came out, and now, had they been accepted to the University of Michigan or Michigan State University or Northern Michigan, they could go. They could realize going to that school, which may have been their first choice. And so there were a lot of students whose lives were changed.

I can give you, if I may, an example. Last night, I was out at dinner and the young lady who was waiting on us was one of the first people who graduated with the Kalamazoo Promise and used the funds. She said, “I was going to go to a local junior college, but now I am graduating from Western Michigan University. Because I was able to use the Promise.”

She is a prime example of what I think that the purpose of the Promise was. And when you start to hear testimonials like that…She stayed home, she went to Western Michigan, she is a productive citizen, she is going to be graduating, and she plans on sticking around Kalamazoo. And these are the first students who have had that chance.

So we like to think that it was a culmination of things that resulted in us winning Race to the Commencement. It is hard to tell, because everybody in the running…When we saw the six schools in the running for the Race to the Commencement, every one of them is doing great things every day. So we are very fortunate.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense about how many students have been able to take advantage of the Kalamazoo Promise?

Washington: Since the Kalamazoo Promise was introduced, 91% of graduating seniors in the entire school district have gone off to college. That is just an amazing number.

Public School Insights: Do you have a sense as to whether it has had an impact on graduation rates as well?

Washington: We are seeing graduation rates go up just a little bit, kind of step by step. But what we have seen is retention rates increase significantly. We have a lot of students putting in that fifth year now and trying to finish. And if it takes you five years to graduate from the public school, you receive the Kalamazoo Promise as well. So we are seeing retention rates go up. Kids are staying. We are looking to graduate 300 students this year. Last year it was 230. A jump of 70 students is pretty big.

Public School Insights: I imagine that something like the Kalamazoo Promise could actually be a magnet to get more people to move to, or continue to live in, Kalamazoo. Have you seen any evidence of that?

Washington: In the first year, and it is hard to say what it is really attributed to, the district took in close to 1000 students. These were kids who came in to the middle school five or six years ago and now they are starting to get to the high school. So our freshman classes are starting to get larger and larger. I have close to 1700 students here at Kalamazoo Central now, but three years ago it was about 1505. So yes, there has been an increase in people who have come to the area. There are those folks who will specifically say, “We came here to be a part of the Promise.” It is a major, major investment on their part to move, to say “Let's go there.” But by the time anybody graduates now, college costs no less than $60,000 or $70,000.

Public School Insights: It is a major economic development strategy for city, too.

Washington: It really is. The donors, while they have given us a wonderful, wonderful gift, may in the future see that gift reproduce itself throughout the city.

Public School Insights: Let’s talk about the video that you submitted to be selected as the winner of the Race to the Commencement. It shows slam poetry. It is extremely powerful. And you have a student at the center who is really the major speaker. Tell me a bit about that student.

Washington: His name is Xavier Bolden. Xavier is a theater student here, who was just notified that he has been accepted to Western Michigan University to go into their theater program. He loves to act.

Xavier is a prime example of a student who would feel passion about going to school here. It was not always an easy road for him academically and/or just with focus. But several staff members—the theater department and any number of individuals—intervened and worked with him and helped him so that he would make it and see his goal of graduation.

And the slam poetry is something that has been phenomenal. To me, slam poetry is the spoken word of rap music, which is very, very popular with young adults. We have a staff member, an English teacher named Chris Bullmer, who is into slam poetry. We created a class here at Kalamazoo Central in slam poetry based upon his expertise. He also works with students after school, when they go and do slam poetry in various venues. It is very big here. And to have that in the video was a testament to what we are looking at, how we are trying to create things out of the box and give students some kind of creative voice here.

So the slam poetry was there. But it was the students who had to do it. And that young man Xavier Bolden…Quite frankly, they had auditions for the slam poetry piece literally 30 minutes before the video was made. So it was not rehearsed. The students got it—“Here it is. Everybody read, and whoever reads it the best is going on.”

He put his passion in it. And I really believe that when you have a cold reading like that and you look at the words, you have to have lived it to be able to read it with the passion that he did.

Public School Insights: Do you think that winning the Race to the Commencement is going to have an effect on the school and the passion of the students, and their motivation?

Washington: We have seen such an increase in focus. And we saw them come together like no other. There were still things that needed to be done once we were selected to be in the final six. The students had to create that video, and they had a short amount of time to do it. There was a core group of students who were working on it, but it took a collective effort from the student body to support it, to be excited about it, to be talking about it every day. Every day when we made announcements about our progress, everyone was listening. So it really brought us together.

Not only that, it drew the community together. The community support for the school and the students was very much felt by the kids. They loved it.

And then it embraced and gave immediate feedback to our staff members that the work they are doing is significant. Sometimes in education, as I am sure you know, you are not really sure that you are making a difference. You come in some days and you just do not know. It's not until a kid graduates and comes up and tells you, “You're my favorite teacher.” You think, “What? I did not think he liked me.” That type of thing. But this is not a job for immediate feedback.

Public School Insights: Kalamazoo Central is going to be held up as a model for many other schools. Do you have a sense of what big lessons you would like to share with other schools that are trying to achieve some of the same things you have?

Washington: Not so much lessons, but just things that we would like to share. This school is a school like any other. When we were accepted in the final six for the Race to the Commencement, there were a lot of people saying, “What?” Like there is this major thing that is supposed to be happening before you can be selected. But really, it is the work that is being done day-to-day by those individuals who are in there. It is those individuals who are up to the task. This is a tough job. You have to be able to handle rejection. You have to be able to deviate from the plan. You have to be able to change directions immediately. You just have to be savvy.

But I cannot stress enough the importance of the culture and the climate in the school. That is really what we attacked and what we attribute a lot of our success to—really going after the culture and the climate of the school. The kids really do run the place, in a way. If they are feeling good about the place, then a lot of good things are going to happen. But if they are feeling bad about the place, it is going to have an adverse effect. So we really attacked the culture and the climate. We created student voice as much as we could in a way that was positive, and we helped guide them.

For example, when it came to this project, they knew that they were going to have what they needed to get it done. They had a conference room. They had all of our attention. If they wanted to take a picture underneath the pool, they got it. They wanted to go on the roof to stand on books, we got on the roof. They knew they could ask, and if we could do it, they were going to have it. And just that feeling…

And creating that same feeling for the staff. He wanted a slam poetry class, Chris Bullmer did. We did not have a slam poetry class. But we went and we got slam poetry. It was very, very significant for us.

So we looked at curriculum. We looked at culture and climate in the school. And we really tried to create student voice. Those are the big things that if anyone wanted to talk to me, I would talk about.