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Tiny NW Michigan town sends nearly all to college

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Baldwin — Unlike many of his peers before him, David Simmons is determined to go to college.

Baldwin high school students Makayla George, left, Alexis Mooney, Nia Freeman, Nicole Mooney and SheDorrius Scott listen to admissions specialists from Northwood University.

The high school senior has spent his life in Baldwin, a village in rural northwestern Michigan with a close-knit feel that could lure him into sticking around. But he is heeding the push to leave his roots near Ludington and get a higher education — especially since both of his parents are unemployed.

At one time, this town of 1,600 people, among the state’s poorest, sent hardly any of its kids off for a higher education. But the community has rallied, creating a college-going culture in the local school district. Now, nearly all of its students plan to go to college.

The town has been able to do this with the Baldwin Promise, a four-year, $20,000 college scholarship for every high school graduate, that was modeled on a seminal program in Kalamazoo.

Students say it makes the difference between going to college or not. Advocates say it transforms lives.

“You gotta go to college, especially in this economy,” Simmons said. “You got to get a job to support yourself. It’s tough out there.”

It’s especially tough in Baldwin, where students face numerous hurdles, such as the state’s worst poverty rate. In the Baldwin school district, which has about 540 students, 94 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch, compared with 76 percent in Detroit.

But now there’s hope for a better future. The seismic shift occurred six years ago after Baldwin created a program that echoes the Kalamazoo Promise — a pioneering initiative that pays for college for every graduating senior, thanks to a wealthy benefactor.

Kalamazoo’s program was groundbreaking when it was created 10 years ago, and has since inspired dozens of similar programs across the nation.

Among them was an initiative created by Michigan government leaders in 2008 to catapult high school students in up to 10 impoverished communities into college.

Lacking big donors, communities such as Benton Harbor and Saginaw funded the “promise zones” by raising enough money for two years of scholarship payments. Under the law authorizing the program, as many as 10 high-poverty districts can capture and use for scholarships half of the growth in state property taxes for education that are generated in their zones.

Baldwin is the only rural community with a promise zone. But that could change; legislation recently was introduced to expand the number of permitted promise zones from 10 to 15.

“We were trying to make this concept work without billionaire resources,” said Chuck Wilbur, a Lansing-based public policy consultant who helped develop the legislation under the administration of then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm. “You can do a tremendous amount with limited resources. You can have some of the cultural impact on a community like Baldwin has.”

Advocates say the initiative was critical for Baldwin, where about 30 students graduate from high school each year, and could be for other rural communities. Typically, programs aimed at getting students into college tend to target kids in urban or suburban communities.

“There aren’t a lot of initiatives geared toward rural students,” said Ayana Richardson, executive director of the Baldwin College Access Center and Baldwin Promise. “A lot of organizations are all about the big numbers, to show impact. But it’s important here to provide a different perspective, different opportunities. It’s amazing how it impacts so many lives here.”

Today, Baldwin students have access to a variety of options to help them get ready for college, including test preparation programs, career days, college campus visits and more.

From 2004-09 — before the Baldwin Promise — an average of 35 percent of the graduating students enrolled in college in the first year after finishing high school. This past year, 26 out of 30 seniors, or 87 percent, were accepted to a higher education institution, continuing a trend that goes back several years.

Those on the path to college include senior Christina McCarthy. Her parents both dropped out of high school in 10th grade, and her sister, who has Down syndrome, has influenced her planned course of study in special education.

What’s making it most possible for her to even consider going to college is the Baldwin scholarship, which McCarthy said would be an enormous help in paying for tuition.

“I want to have a huge impact on lives,” she said. “I want to become a role model like my teachers were for me.”

Baldwin is nestled on the edge of the Manistee National Forest, nearly a four-hour drive northwest of Detroit. The downtown is a few city blocks with a homemade ice cream parlor, barber shop, library and a few shops. Nearby are the Lake County Courthouse and the sheriff’s department.

The nearest large urban area is Grand Rapids, about 90 minutes away. It takes about a half hour to get to the nearest hospital or to buy a Big Mac and fries.

Baldwin is in an area rich in natural resources, with dozens of lakes, and outdoor activities such as snowmobiling, fly fishing and biking are popular.

But it’s also impoverished. Many high school students hail from homes where their parents are unemployed or underemployed. Baldwin is the county seat of Lake County, which has the highest child poverty rate in the state at 52.2 percent, according to the most recent Michigan Kids Count Data Report, which tracks and compares trends in child well-being.

But poverty isn’t the only area where Lake County ranks at the bottom in the state. It has Michigan’s highest rate of teen pregnancies and the lowest rate of students graduating from high school on time.

Baldwin residents wanted more for their students, especially the late Rick Simonson, who envisioned the Baldwin Promise long before the promise zones were offered, said Ellen Kerans, a resident and close friend.

Simonson had his own life-changing experience while he was a junior in high school: He was supported by the community and the Rotary Club to be a page in the Michigan House of Representatives. He later went to Albion College and went on to a career in politics, including running President Gerald Ford’s 1976 election campaign in Michigan.

When Simonson retired, he came home to Michigan and spearheaded a plan to create a Baldwin Promise for students with private funds. A committee was formed and proposals were sent.

But a stock market crash left funders unable to finance it, Kerans said. They were crushed. But soon after, the Legislature approved the promise zone legislation and Baldwin was ready. It was the first to apply and first to be designated a promise zone.

“Something sad happened and then the rainbow came out,” Kerans said. “It was amazing.”

Dozens of students have since taken advantage of the opportunity.

Among them is Elizabeth Wilcox, a junior studying accounting at Oakland University. While in high school at Baldwin, she toured the Rochester school and felt like she was home.

The daughter of parents who are employed by a grocery store and a factory, Wilcox wasn’t sure she could afford to go to Oakland U, since costs for room and board exceed $20,000 a year.

But the Baldwin Promise “made college affordable, it made it a possibility,” said Wilcox, 21. “Before the Baldwin Promise, I wasn’t exactly sure I was going to be able to go to college because it costs a lot of money. But I made it.”

kkozlowski@detroitnews.com