This June in Kalamazoo, Michigan, President Obama will deliver the commencement address to Kalamazoo Central High School's class of 2010. KCHS was one of three finalists in the first "Race to the Top" competition and the President's final choice. With Kalamazoo's mayor Bobby Hopewell in attendance, K' Central's principal, Von Washington Jr. received the news at 11:00 Tuesday morning from Obama's Secretary of Education, Arnie Duncan.
KCHS is deserving of the honor. Over 80% of the senior class graduates each year. This may be due in part to the "Kalamazoo Promise." The "Promise" guarantees tuition at any public state college or university to KCHS graduates. Funded anonymously, this program is proving very successful in attracting families to the district and keeping students engaged throughout their K-12 education. KCHS is racially diverse; the student body is 51% African-American, 39% Caucasian, 7% Hispanic, 2% Asian-American, and 1% Native American. Many of these students, in particular, minorities, who would not otherwise have the means to continue on to higher education, will be able to take advantage of "Promise" money to fund college.
K' Central offers a first-rate, well-rounded experience to its students. The Maroon Giants captured the state class "A" boy's basketball championship this past March and the forensics team routinely places well in competition. A new performing arts complex offers students opportunities to produce arts events utilizing technically advanced facilities. The Kalamazoo school system operates a number of magnet schools giving students a variety of educational experiences, tailored to their specific interests. In short, K' Central is a terrific place for students to mature in a diverse, and supportive environment.
This is all standard boilerplate stuff and on its own, is great. There is however, a different take on why KCHS deserves this honor.
Other than racial diversity, administration, staff and students actively support sexual orientation and gender identity diversity. Kalamazoo Central has one of only a handful of Gay-Straight Alliances in Kalamazoo County. Not only are GSA's rare in this part of Michigan, but, increasingly they encounter downward pressure from school boards and administrators. One area district has gone so far as to suspend students for participating in the "National Day of Silence". Kalamazoo Public Schools and KCHS not only stand against this trend, the GSA at K' Central is vital and growing.
Kalamazoo Central's principal wasn't the only person at KCHS to get a good news phone call Tuesday; Patricia Carlin, staff advisor for KC's GSA was informed that the Kalamazoo Community Foundation Equality Fund awarded them a grant specifically for Gay-Straight Alliance support. In an e-mail to Equality Fund board members, Ms. Carlin expressed her excitement about the grant: "Thanks so very much for this great news. I am very excited and the students will be as well. We had a great Day of Silence and this will be the icing on the cake for them."
(Also, today we find out if the president is going to speak at graduation, can you even imagine?)
In February 2008, KCHS stirred national attention when members of the gay-bashing Westboro Baptist Church announced their intention to protest and disrupt a student production of "The Laramie Project". Despite the highly publicized controversy, students, parents, and administrators, refused to back-down. The performances went on as scheduled, and were sold-out. Residents of Kalamazoo banded together with LGBT groups and allies to stage a counter protest to the hate church. Westboro, despite their fierce rhetoric, failed to show.
Far too often, our public schools cannot encourage diversity and fairness. Narrow-minded, fear-mongering candidates bully their way onto school boards and push personal agendas. The long-term consequences on young citizens of the stifling policies enacted by these people are frightening. Rather than encouraging intellectual curiosity and critical thought, students are taught to seek simplistic, black and white points of view. There is a well-understood, direct correlation between critical thought and valuing diversity.
Kalamazoo Public Schools, by providing a multi-faceted educational environment that will produce thoughtful graduates, makes it a good model for our nation. Test scores, incremental yearly improvement of overall academic achievement certainly have a place in what we think of as a "good" school. Nevertheless, well-rounded graduates who think critically, posses positive self-images, and value diversity and equality provide the best measure of success for our schools.