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Von Washington

What is your official title?

Executive Director of Community Relations for the Kalamazoo Promise.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

An average day is meeting with several individuals, from business leaders to educational thought leaders to anyone who is interested in helping students succeed and gain the skills they need not only to utilize the Kalamazoo Promise, but to be successful using it.


What is the Kalamazoo Promise?

The Kalamazoo Promise was established in 2005 when Dr. Janice Brown announced that some anonymous donors had come together and were going to provide a scholarship in the form of tuition and fees to any state Michigan college or university for the graduates of Kalamazoo Public Schools. That scholarship could be up to 100% tuition and fees if the student spent their whole K-12 experience in the Kalamazoo Public School system, or if they were there for at least four consecutive years – grades 9-12 – they could earn up to 65%; then it would be pro-rated from there.

The scholarship has some very special parts to it. A student has up to 10 years to utilize the scholarship. It’s 10 years, 130 credits, or a bachelor’s degree – whatever comes first. In the fall of 2014, we announced 15 private colleges and universities that can now receive promise scholars. After 10 years, $67 million has been given out in scholarship dollars. Over 1000 students have degrees, and each year we have about 2000 students that are in school, averaging just over $11 million a year going out in tuition and fees. The scholarship is promised in perpetuity; it will never end.

The majority of scholarships across the country are “use it or lose it.” Not many scholarships out there take into account when life gets in the way. That’s what makes this scholarship so special. I don’t know of another scholarship program that has the same generosity of the donors of The Promise. One of the things we’re trying to do as we look back over the 10 years and what’s been successful and what hasn’t is that we know there is a much larger number of students that have the scholarship but aren’t in school right now; it’s much too large to be acceptable. Balance needs to take place, and for many, if you can balance some type of work and going to school, you can be very successful. Some people get themselves into an all or nothing type of situation, which can sometimes create additional barriers on top of what paying for school would typically bring.


Do you have a favorite Promise story?

There are multiple stories of families of various backgrounds that have had a great experience. With the Promise, it doesn’t matter if your makes $2 million or $20; the Promise is going to pay your tuition and fees. Therefore, any other aid that you receive can be applied to other parts of your deal. A lot of scholarships are middle to last dollar, meaning they factor in your aid first, then pay your tuition. I hear stories all the time about students that say.


Any big events coming up?

On August 15th, which we’ll be passed by the time this posts, will be our 10 year celebration in Bronson Park. We want it to be an education day that will rival any other education day. A little over a year and a half ago, we convened 20 community leaders from various sectors of the community to come together on a committee to plan the events for our celebration. The first plans came out in early spring, which started community conversations. The goal of the community conversations was to gather information from people who had received the Promise scholarship and their families. We wanted to find out about their experiences – what went well, what didn’t – and really wanted to root out some of that information from the scholars that at some point touched a college campus, but were no longer in school or had success.

A couple of things about the Promise. One, there’s no grade point average or requirement in high school to receive the Promise, but you must graduate from a Kalamazoo Public School. Once you get into college, you must maintain a 2.0 grade point average. If for some reason you fall below that, you go on probation. If it happens twice, you go on suspension. When that happens, as the rules stand now, you must pay for your own way for full time credits, and show that you’re ready to get going again, and then the Promise can be reinstated. We do know that the students that fall into the suspension phase have trouble getting back into good standing, so we want to look into that. We can’t assume that these folks are lazy – there are other barriers that we need to better understand. This community is far too generous and far too rich with resources to allow and or accept this type of situation, so we’re working on figuring out what those barriers are.


How is the organization set up?

We are an office of two and an intern. One thing we’re trying to do is leverage the scholarship in all other community resources and assets. In essence, we’re saying no fair, some community donors came up with $67 million, but we still have many students with barriers in front of them that they can’t use the scholarship. So what are we going to do as a community with this community gift? Really, this is an experiment. It’s maybe one of the greatest social experiments that we’ll ever experience in our time. What does it mean to give the younger generation to a community access to a high quality education? What can that mean as far as stopping generational problems, what families are facing, what challenges are ahead, and put them on a trajectory for success.

I hear stories all of the time from students telling me they would have had to work and not be able to go to school or students that have four brothers and sisters and would have a difficult time going to school. One of my favorite stories was when the scholarship was announced, a young lady was in tears; someone asked her why she was crying, and she said that she was accepted to the university of her dreams, but because of her family financial situation she wasn’t going to be able to go. She was going to have to work in town, hopefully take some courses at the local school, and try to save enough money to be able to go to the school she wanted to. With one announcement, she was able to go to the university of her dreams; she had worked hard in high school and earned it.

Some of the other stories I like are of families that have triplets, or even more kids going through school at the same time. The Promise makes a huge impact on those families. Something that I like to bring up when I talk to folks about The Promise is what would your life be like if you didn’t have student loans? What would your situation look like today if you didn’t have loans to pay back? Imagine having your degree with little to no debt, and what would your life look like post-college as you started to build your life.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

My father was in the military, so I was born in Montana; that usually raises a few eyebrows when I mention that. A year later, I was in Colorado and a year after that, we were in Germany. I started my formal education in Germany. After 12 years, my father left the service and decided to go to college, and we landed in Kalamazoo; he was born and raised in Albion, MI. We landed in Kalamazoo, so I did some school years here until the 7th grade. He and my mother both decided to go for their master’s degrees at the University of Michigan, and I graduated high school at Ann Arbor Pioneer.

I had the opportunity to play basketball at Western State University in Colorado, and then tried my hand at professional basketball for a while before coming back to Kalamazoo to complete a master’s degree in education. I knew I wanted to coach basketball, and working in education was a way to do that. I started coaching basketball as a volunteer at Kalamazoo Central, and started working in the school system at Battle Creek Public Schools. I was a librarian; another eyebrow raising thing. I was a children’s librarian. That was me, a Montana children’s librarian, trying to hoop.

A few years later, I got my first head coaching job; I was the boys’ varsity coach in Niles. I was there for several years, and then West Ottawa for a few years, which is where I had my first stint as an Assistant Principal. After leaving there, I came back to Kalamazoo to open the alternative school for the Kalamazoo Public Schools – Phoenix High School. I was at Phoenix for one year, and the superintendent of schools, Dr. Janice Brown came to me and said something to me that I’ll forever remember. She said, “You’re doing a good job here, but I need you impacting more people.” It was one of those moments where someone sees something in you that maybe you didn’t see in yourself at the time.

I had the opportunity then to become the Principal at Kalamazoo Central High School. That was a life altering experience. We were very fortunate at Kalamazoo Central; lots of great things happened there, including winning the first Race to the Top Commencement Challenge, and having the President of the United States give our commencement address. This was the first time a sitting President ever gave a high school commencement address, so it was a very exciting, historical moment for us. Eight years I was a Principal there before going to try my hand at economic development, which I enjoyed immensely. I really look at the year I spent with Southwest Michigan First as one of the most pivotal learning years I can ever remember in my life. That year contributed to this opportunity and so many aspects of what it takes to do this job, that I was very fortunate to have the sequence of events happen the way they did. After a year and a half with SWMF, I had another conversation with Dr. Brown. She was going to retire, and I was asked to be her successor, so I feel extremely fortunate. She really has a lot to do with helping me grow and become the leader I am today.

My kids are a part of The Promise. My son is in his third year playing basketball at Western, and my daughter is at Michigan State; both of them are Promise Scholars.

And lastly, I won Dancing with the Stars this year at Western. We did a really difficult dance. There was the Charleston in there. We jammed. It was so awesome. I had a great partner; they match you up with someone from the dance department. I practiced by myself a lot in the morning at the YMCA.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

The fact that Kalamazoo, for me, has had a way that each time I’ve been here (this is my third time), has provided me with opportunities that I don’t know if I would be able to receive anywhere else. Opportunities to coach basketball and finish an education. The second time coming back, having the opportunity to have children and raise them here. The last time coming back and seeing my professional life develop and grow, and being able to give back to a city that’s given me so much. These things make Kalamazoo crazy important to the work that I do, and to wanting to be successful. It’s a giving, caring community, with things that are unmatched like The Promise. I challenge you to find anything like it anywhere else.


What can be done to improve Kalamazoo?

I really think that Kalamazoo is a best kept secret. I think we need to let the world know that this is a wonderful place where you can come live, work and play, raise a family, and it’s OK to be single here; that can work for you too! I think we can do a little bit better of a job selling ourselves as not just a city with an interesting name and a wonderful scholarship, but a place where you can come and be invested and spend your life.


What have you been jammin’ to recently?

Very into jazz; saxophone jazz to be specific. I like horn jazz – trumpets and saxophones. I found long ago that music drives me almost as much as sunshine. I learn that the best opportunity for me to study and to focus is when there is music playing. I think that jazz became big for me because there are no words; I could let the music take me to the space I needed to be in without focusing on lyrics.


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

I became a coffee drinker, maybe 10 years ago. For a long time I swore it off, I thought nope, not me, I don’t need this, stunts your growth, I don’t need caffeine, I’m already running at 100 miles an hour. About 10 years ago, I started to develop an appreciation for a casual cup of coffee in the morning, and now find myself searching for it in the morning, making sure strategically where I’m going and how I’m getting there involves an opportunity for me to get a cup of coffee. My coffee habit is as old as The Promise; the announcement happened, and I was like, let’s go!


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

I really do enjoy Totally Brewed. It’s a really nice combination of a place where you can meet officially and or casually. It has a city feel, since it’s kind of right out by the street. And the folks who own it just make everyone feel so comfortable. They know everyone’s name, and they’re so accommodating. Not to mention, great food, and great coffee.


Who would play you in a movie?

There’s a guy, can’t remember his name. Oh, he was in that Best Man movie – Morris Chestnut.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

There are no shortcuts. And so you will spend a lot of valuable time dealing with the fallout of trying to take the shortcut. By the time you look up, you’ll have spent more time than it would’ve been if you did everything the way it should’ve been done in the first place.


What’s something new you want to try within the next year?

It’s a simple one, but if I could get into something right now, I want to paddleboard. Not too adventurous or exciting, but I want to paddleboard.


What is the future of the Kalamazoo Promise?

I see a lot of conversation nationally about free college for all. The President has talked about it. I see The Promise being a catalyst for a national movement for us to take care of our young people, and give them access to an education for their future success.


Have you seen any major changes in the community as an output of The Promise?

Absolutely. In the first year, close to 1000 students came into the school district, which represents a lot of opportunity – new families and growth. What it’s done has created this laser focus for areas of development and new programs. Everyone is trying. The Promise has one name, so when you’re pointing towards it and what your organization can do for it, it creates a common language in the community. From the person who never went to college, to the person who never had an opportunity to the student who had straight A’s in college, when you talk about The Promise, you’re talking about the same thing; you’re talking about access to education. You can’t single out rich or poor folks; The Promise is The Promise for all.


Von, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Keep up with Von and the Promise on facebook. Also, be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.