FOR YEARS NOW, in editorial after editorial, I’ve been writing about the obvious: For Beloit, for Wisconsin, for America, the future will be won or lost in the classroom.
Unfortunately, though, there’s a cruel convergence of trends undermining academic progress. As the family structure has bent and sometimes broken as the primary support system for America’s kids, schools have been burdened by an ever-increasing role for social remediation. There’s a negative academic consequence to be paid. Every hour spent getting kids ready to learn is an hour of lost learning.
an economic development strategy designed to lower the barriers to college access creating potential for community transformation.
Youngsters who may not have been top academic achievers, in generations past, usually could count on landing a job at one of the community’s strong manufacturers. Not anymore. Manufacturing remains an important part of the economic base, but it’s not what it was … and never will be again. Most of the jobs remaining, in fact, require ever-higher skill levels due to technological complexities.
So it’s more critical that young people do well in school, and then obtain some form of post-secondary education. Which brings us to another part of that cruel convergence of trends. Government support for post-secondary education is in decline, which has led institutions to pass on higher costs to students and their families. Put it all together: Social challenges; job scarcity; higher required skills; prohibitive costs.
IS THERE an answer? Some folks in Beloit think so.
A group has been meeting, quietly, for some time seeking an approach to address these and other challenges facing not just families and students, but the community as a whole.
Among those involved in the group are Andrew Janke, Beloit economic development director; Ann Sitrick, Beloit Memorial Hospital; Bill Henderson, attorney; Missy Henderson, Beloit school board member; Jim Fisher, retired business executive; Lanier Gordon, retired business executive; Rick Barder, retired bank executive; Tara Tinder, Beloit Community Foundation; and Tom Johnson, principal of Beloit Memorial High School.
They have come up with an idea being called “The Beloit Promise.” That’s not original, by the way; it’s modeled after “The Kalamazoo Promise,” a successful program started a few years ago in Kalamazoo, Mich., to address similar issues.
The outlines of the proposal will be presented the morning of Aug. 24 when the Greater Beloit Economic Development Corporation and the School District of Beloit host a program at the Eclipse Center. Dr. Janice Brown, executive director of The Kalamazoo Promise, will be one of the keynote speakers. What she’ll have to say surely will open some eyes. And maybe raise a few eyebrows.
JUST WHAT IS this “Promise?” Simply put, it’s a scholarship program. It is place-based — only available to students within a specific geographic area. It is privately funded by philanthropy. And here’s the kicker: It is accessible not just for a favored few, but for every student.
That’s right. Every student. Not just the highest achievers. Not just athletes. Not just the poor.
The purpose of the Promise of universal scholarship opportunity is, according to a fact sheet, to create “an economic development strategy designed to lower the barriers to college access creating potential for community transformation.”
That’s a fancy way of saying it’s intended to address problems just like those facing Beloit. Too many kids are falling through the cracks. Too many lack hope. Too many see no bridge from their everyday circumstances to the opportunity to develop their potential. The community, not just the kids, pays a price for failure.
OK. PERHAPS there is a transformational element for the kids, but how can it be transformational for the community? Look at a few possibilities:
- It makes Beloit schools a magnet. What family wouldn’t give serious thought to a district that could offer substantial financing for the kids’ education?
- Attractive schools translate into a residential draw. You have to live here to qualify.
- It’s no secret: Beloit’s current demographics pose a challenge when it comes to economic development. Average educational attainment, average income, average home values … you name it, Beloit lags behind and needs to do better. The Promise program is designed to build higher demographics by promoting achievement, while also attracting families interested in participating.
- Combined, those factors become an incentive for developers and investors to give Beloit a hard look. Make no mistake, innovation matters. Finding a way to separate a community’s attributes from the crowd gets noticed. Call it sizzle, call it added value. The point is business decisions are more than cold, hard spreadsheet calculations and comparisons. Quality of life issues count, and the opportunities represented in a Promise community would make a strong selling point for Beloit to attract investment, jobs and residents.
SO FAR, SO GOOD, right? Everybody can get behind a scholarship program for all kids, offering financial help potentially all the way up to a full ride of 100 percent tuition and fees for four years.
There has to be a catch and, as always is the case, that catch is money.
How much money?
It’s envisioned as a 12-year plan, starting smaller with a first-year estimate of roughly $400,000. That goes up year-by-year as more youngsters participate, to a potential 12-year total cost of perhaps $20 million.
Well. Nice dream while it lasted. Can’t be done.
Like the RiverFront Project, which transformed Beloit’s central city corridor, couldn’t be done, right?
Like the Main Street program, which rebuilt Beloit’s downtown, couldn’t be done. Right?
Like the rebirth of the former Beloit Corporation campus into the gleaming Ironworks complex couldn’t be done. Right?
Like opening up the corridor east of I-90 into the Gateway Business Park, with hundreds of thousands of square feet of commercial space and thousands of jobs couldn’t be done. Right?
HERE’S HOPING readers get the point. Sure, the notion of a Beloit Promise program — raising $20 million, offering every kid a shot at college — is a big idea, literally boiling over with challenges. It’s custom-made for naysayers to laugh and scoff at the foolishness of the dreamers who think it could work.
Dreamers like Principal Tom Johnson, who aptly describes the Promise as “writing a check of hope.”
News flash: Behind every great accomplishment one will find the dreamers. They’re the ones who make it happen, by hard work and iron will, while the naysayers sit on the sidelines throwing raspberries.
To my way of thinking, dreamers need to be encouraged. That includes the good folks who envision a Beloit Promise program.
And it includes all those future Beloit students, and their families, who may think they can’t dream, that whatever potential they have is destined to be overwhelmed by obstacles.
What’s a dream worth? Twenty million dollars?
Beloit may have an exciting opportunity to answer that question.
William R. Barth is the Editor of
The Beloit Daily News.