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Kalamazoo Promise grads’ first year of college started slow, got better


The 2006 class of Kalamazoo Public Schools is learning that a free ride in college doesn’t guarantee success but it still can come in very handy.

“It’s just something else that I don’t have to think about,” says Alex Plair II.

Plair, 18, who is about to enter his second year at Western Michigan University, was among the first students to benefit from The Kalamazoo Promise, an anonymously funded free-tuition program for graduates of the district’s high schools.

Even without the worry of college tuition payments and student loans, he faced many of the same challenges of other freshmen their first time living away from home, and his first semester at Western Michigan last fall didn’t go as well as he had hoped. The lifelong Kalamazoo resident decided to live in a residence hall, where he had some difficulty concentrating on his studies.

“When I was in high school, I would come home and my parents would always say, ‘You’ve got to study,'” he says. “Now you’re just on your own. You have so much free time, you really have to plan out your day or else you get caught up in things that distract you from your work.”

School started going better for him about midway through the semester, after his roommate moved out. They got along well enough, says Plair, but it became easier to hit the books with the dorm room to himself.

By the end of his second semester, the mature-beyond-his-years engineering student had boosted his cumulative GPA to 3.48, well above what was required for him to renew his annual scholarship from The Kalamazoo Promise.

To keep the scholarship, a student must attend a public university or community college in Michigan, maintain at least a 2.0 GPA and successfully complete at least 12 credit hours each semester.

The scholarship provides tuition and mandatory fees for post-secondary education on a sliding scale based on how long a student attends Kalamazoo schools before graduation. Because Plair was a student in the district from kindergarten through 12th grade, he received a 100 percent scholarship. He also jumped on Western Michigan’s offer to provide four years of free room and board to Promise scholarship recipients.

Another 2006 graduate of Kalamazoo schools, Stephanie Butler, is using her 65 percent Promise scholarship along with other scholarship money she is getting to attend her father’s alma mater, Michigan State University.

“It allows me not to have to worry about money, which is huge I have to underline, italicize, boldface that word not having to worry about money is a huge thing,” Butler says. “I have a lot of friends who have taken out (student) loans. I have a lot of friends who are majorly in debt.”

Like Plair, Butler says her living arrangement during her first semester in East Lansing she and three other students shared a small room in an on-campus dorm for freshmen made it hard for her to study properly. Butler, who earned nearly all A’s in high school, finished the semester with about a 3.0 GPA a B average.

“I wasn’t ready for dealing with three different roommates,” says Butler, 19. “I wasn’t ready for that room.”

By the start of her second semester, she had secured a room to herself in a different building on campus where she could spread out, have more time to herself and study better.

Butler, who plans to become a high school teacher, holds down a couple of part-time receptionist jobs on campus during the school year.

“I like being able to support myself,” says the affable student as she sips a cup of coffee in a Kalamazoo cafe.

At Woods Lake Elementary School just down the street, a fellowship program is providing her with a teaching job this summer where she earns money and college credits by helping some first-graders who are at-risk of being held back this fall from the second grade.

“It’s been very hard,” says Butler, who will have enough credits under her belt after this summer to earn junior standing at Michigan State in the fall. “They just want the attention. They want the one-on-one.”

Plair is working part-time this summer sorting packages at a FedEx facility in Kalamazoo and took two classes at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. He also takes part in a small Bible study group that meets at Western Michigan once a week.

He hopes to earn a degree in either construction engineering or civil engineering and to one day own a construction company, which he’d like to use as part of a ministry to help the underprivileged.

A standout tackle and linebacker in high school, Plair says he may try out for the Broncos’ football team as a walk-on before his junior or senior years. Some of his time as a sophomore will be spent working out and trying to get back into playing shape.

He hasn’t decided yet whether he will keep his FedEx job, where he now works from midnight until 3 a.m. or 3:30 a.m.

Bob Jorth, who oversees the Promise program, warns against students taking on too much responsibility. Taking too many courses or working too many hours has hurt some students.

About 20 percent of the students who received Promise scholarships for the 2006-07 school year didn’t do well enough to have their funding renewed this fall, he says. Sixty-two of the 332 students who got scholarships were sent letters saying they may not be renewed because of low grades.

“Some of them may be able to recover during the summer because some of them are taking summer school classes,” Jorth says.

Most of the students that he spoke with got into trouble by trying to do too much, he says.

Jorth says he and other Kalamazoo schools officials were “reasonably satisfied” by the performance of the 2006 grads in their first year of college.

“I mean, anytime you have to suspend that many scholarships, you’re disappointed, but I think, given what we know about national norms, that we’re pleased with the first class’ performance to date and it just gives us something to build on,” Jorth says.

On the Net:

The Kalamazoo Promise Web site:

– Associated Press

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