Makayla George went on her first college tour when she was in the eighth grade. She took the requisite entrance tests on time. And in the fall of 2015, when she was a senior in high school, she applied to 13 colleges.
She got into all of them.
Then she spent weeks agonizing over which one to choose.
George, a bubbly, curly-haired sports fanatic, revealed her choice on “Decision Day,” a school-wide assembly in May during which seniors stand up, walk onto a stage, and announce the college they will be attending.
Clad in a yellow t-shirt with the words “ACCEPTED” on the front, she told the crowd, “I will be attending Eastern Michigan University.” Applause echoed across the gymnasium.
Among her graduating class, her experience was far from unique. Most of her classmates applied to multiple colleges – one of them sent out 20 applications – and most got into their top choice. All told, 90 percent of her class will pursue some form of higher education.
Those stats sound like the stuff of an elite prep school, not the public high school in the seat of one of the poorest counties in Michigan, where 95 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
But something fascinating has occurred in the village of Baldwin.
It wasn’t long ago that most of Baldwin’s young people would hang around the blighted Rust Belt community after they graduated from high school, getting by on income from odd jobs or applying to become a guard at the privately run prison that is the area’s principal employer. In a good year, 30 percent of graduates would head off to undertake some form of further schooling, but many returned after a year or two, unable to afford the cost of attendance. More young people wound up on public assistance within four years of leaving high school than earned college diplomas.
“Baldwin has a long history of generational poverty,” says Randy Howes, who spent seven years as the superintendent of the school system in Baldwin. “They matriculated into what had been traditional within the families, which was a welfare existence.”
In 2005, Howes and other Baldwin leaders learned about a plan that had been unveiled in the Michigan city of Kalamazoo to offer every high school graduate a full scholarship to attend any public college in the state. The program, called the Kalamazoo Promise, was underwritten by a group of anonymous donors.
That got residents thinking.
“If Kalamazoo could find an angel to subsidize a promise, why couldn’t we do that in Baldwin?” recalls Ellen Kerans, a retired teacher who moved to the village 12 years ago and served as a volunteer tutor in the schools.
Unlike Kalamazoo, Baldwin didn’t have any local prospective angels – no big businesses, no deep-pocketed philanthropists. So Kerans, Howes, and a few others joined forces and wrote up proposals addressed to large corporations and foundations elsewhere in the state. They mailed letters to anyone they thought might be willing to donate.
They received a few positive responses. By then, however, it was the summer of 2007. Not long after, the mortgage bubble burst and U.S. stock markets crashed.
“They wrote us back saying they were not a bit interested anymore,” Kerans says. “We were devastated.”
Kerans, Howes, and the others licked their wounds, but not for long.
“These kids needed us,” she says. “We weren’t going to give up.”
As village leaders regrouped, they got a bit of good news. Rick Simonson, a Baldwin native who chaired President Gerald Ford’s election campaign in Michigan and later served as a legislative staffer and lobbyist in Michigan, told them about a law that the legislature had just passed aimed at creating 10 “promise zones” in the state to offer Kalamazoo-like scholarships. If communities raised sufficient seed funds, they would be allowed to sustain the scholarships by keeping a portion of annual property tax revenues that they would otherwise have to pass on to the state.
The Baldwin leaders realized they would have to raise just a few hundred thousand dollars instead of the $3 million they had thought they needed. But even that sum seemed insurmountable. Nobody in Baldwin and surrounding Lake County had any money to spare lying around. Everyone appeared to be living paycheck to paycheck, or on welfare.
Unwilling to give up, Kerans began to knock on doors. Her neighbors. Churches. The Rotary Club. The police station and the fire station.
“We had some grandparents who said, ‘I can only give $20 a month. Is that okay?’” she says. “And we said, ‘That’s more that we could expect.’”
A roadside barbecue joint put out a collection jar. It raised $500.
Kerans and Simonson met with every teacher and employee of the school system. They walked out with $17,500 in pledges. Even the custodial staff contributed.
“It was amazing,” she remembers. “Everyone wanted our students to have an opportunity that wasn’t given to them.”
People who had grown up in Baldwin, but were no longer living there, pitched in, too. Village leaders sent letters to every former resident for whom they could track down an address. Checks arrived from across the country.
Many in Baldwin believe the collective generosity is the result of strong community spirit and deep civic engagement. But they maintain that another, perhaps surprising characteristic of their village deserves the most credit: its racial diversity.
Baldwin is on the western side of lower Michigan, about halfway between Grand Rapids and Traverse City. That part of the state is predominantly white, save for Baldwin, whose school district also includes the neighboring hamlet of Idlewild. The district’s population is almost evenly divided between white and black residents.
Before the Civil War, Idlewild was one of the northernmost stops on the Underground Railroad. In the Jim Crow era, wealthy blacks from Detroit and Chicago, including prominent entertainers such as Nat King Cole, who faced discrimination at white-run vacation resorts, spent their summer holidays around the lake in Idlewild.
In the 1960s, schools in the area were integrated with little of the strife that ripped apart other communities, in large part because the high school’s sports teams faced virulent racism when they traveled to compete in nearby towns, most of which were all white. Epithets were shouted from the stands. Nooses were tied to football goalposts. Opposing players spat in their hands before offering them to Baldwin kids for post-game high fives.
“Those things brought us closer together,” says Deborah Smith-Olson, the chief executive of the Lake-Osceola State Bank, who grew up in Baldwin and now serves as the chair of the board of the Baldwin Promise Authority. “They didn’t do it to our black friends. They did it to all of us.”
The racial animosity from other communities, which continues to this day, according to current students, has created a distinctive environment in Baldwin’s schools. Black and white students sit together in classrooms and at lunch tables, not in separate groups. They socialize together and consider each other the best of friends.
Smith-Olson believes that when alumni were solicited to support the scholarship fund, those memories led them to dig deep into their wallets. “There was a positive association for those who went to school here,” she says.
Within a year – faster than anyone involved had expected – Baldwin had raised enough money to inaugurate the scholarship program.
The Baldwin Promise is a remarkable expression of a small town’s desire to create a better future for its young people. Although there are promise scholarships in several communities around the nation, Baldwin was the first place to raise the seed funds through grassroots contributions.
High school graduates receive a $5,000-a-year scholarship for four years to attend any public college or university in Michigan. To qualify for the full amount, students have to have spent all of their high school years at Baldwin High.
The Promise kicks in only after students have exhausted other forms of financial aid, such as Pell Grants and state funding. But for most graduates, the $5,000 helps them make up the difference to pay for a four-year university.
Makayla George, the woman who was admitted to 13 schools, said she likely would have attended a two-year community college or a trade school if she didn’t have the Promise. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay for four years,” she says.
Scholarship money is just one ingredient in the secret sauce that has transformed Baldwin. The Promise has radically reoriented the village’s overall attitude toward education. At the elementary school, a banner in the hallway proclaims, “College Begins in Kindergarten.”
It is bordered with each child’s hand-drawn face, adorned with a blue commencement cap.
In the first grade, children are asked what they want to be when they grow up, and teachers steer the discussion to the importance of college to achieve those dreams. When students reach the fifth grade, they are taken on a field trip to a college in central Michigan.
“Twenty years ago, you would hear first-graders say, ‘I want to be just like my dad,’ who was on welfare and didn’t work,” says Judith Eversole, who spent 24 years on the town’s school board. “Now they say, ‘I want to be a doctor.’”
In high school, the focus on higher education intensifies. Ayana Richardson, the director of the College Access Center, leads the charge from a cinder-block-walled room painted blue and maize – the colors of her alma mater, the University of Michigan – and adorned with photos of universities and motivational messages about higher education. “You have what it takes to get into college!” proclaims one.
Richardson, who combines the peppiness of a cheerleader with the no-excuses mentality of a hard-nosed coach, has a job that was created – and is partly funded – by the Promise program. It is her unflagging drive to take students on campus visits, get them to take their aptitude tests on time, apply to a range of schools, and craft their admissions essays with care that is as crucial to the increase in the higher education matriculation rate as the $5,000 annual scholarships.
During a week of last year’s fall break, she came to work every day. She summoned several seniors at 7:45 a.m. to prepare for tests and fill out applications before admissions deadlines.
“Ayana works with every student,” says Kerans. “She won’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She’ll text them to remind them that applications are due. She’ll stay in touch with them when they get to college and help them if they have problems.” For every dollar the Baldwin Promise program devotes to scholarships, it spends two on preparation efforts. “The readiness piece is key,” Kerans says.
Richardson, who gets as excited at the arrival of each acceptance letter as the recipient, recognizes that most of her students don’t have parents who have filled out college applications or navigated the financial aid process. “I’ve told them that I’m there for them, at every step of the way,” she says. “If you want to get kids to college, you can’t just offer them money.”
The scholarships and Richardson’s coaching have fostered a new attitude toward studying among students. Instead of trying to skate by just doing the bare minimum, they are actively engaged in the classroom. “I have students who come in and say, ‘I need to get this grade because I want to go to this school,’” she says. “Students are more focused on their academic performance.”
That’s fueled a healthy competition the village previously saw only on the athletic fields. In 2015, the graduating class completed about 100 college applications. In 2016, the number jumped to 150.
Next year’s class, Richardson says, already has pledged to exceed that total.
Ten of the 150 applications that the Class of 2016 submitted were sent by Da’Ron Copeland. Asked to list them, he struggles to remember every institution, even though he was accepted by all 10. But what matters now is the one he is attending: Michigan State University.
“I’ve always wanted to be there. I’ve idolized the university. But I wasn’t really sure if I’d be able to do that coming from where I did,” he says.
Neither of his parents went to college, and he knew his family wouldn’t be able to afford to send him, either. His grades were good, and he was a decent athlete, but he wasn’t good enough in the classroom or on the court to get a full scholarship. And he didn’t want to spend years paying off large student loans.
“Without the Promise, there’s no way I’d be attending State,” he says.
Richardson arrived in Baldwin when Copeland was in the eighth grade. She took him and his classmates on a tour of Central Michigan University. It was the first time he had been on a college campus, and it inspired him to think about life beyond high school – and beyond Baldwin. He devoted more energy to academics, and heeded Richardson’s reminders to fill out every form on time. “Before, a lot of us thought, ‘Maybe I can go to college one day,’” he says. “It’s a mindset now. We know it’s attainable.”