This tiny rural community pledged to send all its graduates to higher education.
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In 2009, the adults of Baldwin, Michigan, made a promise to their kids, the students at Baldwin Community Schools.

If you studied hard and applied for higher education, they’d give you $5,000 a year for four years to make sure you got to go.

The Baldwin Promise was inspired by a similar promise made by the people of Kalamazoo, Michigan, to their kids in 2005. Along with 10 other regions in the Michigan Promise Zone, Baldwin provides up to $20,000 in academic funds for students who want to pursue further schooling. The money can be used at any public university or community or private college in the state of Michigan. All students need in order to qualify is to live in Baldwin from ninth grade until graduation, to be accepted at a higher learning institution, and to qualify for Pell grants. The Baldwin Promise makes up the difference.


Many of the students at Baldwin High School don't have a lot of options after graduation — that's where the Baldwin Promise comes in and provides college scholarships for those in need. A Starbucks original series.

Posted by Upworthy on Thursday, September 15, 2016

For students here, this promise means everything. Particularly when the odds seem stacked against them.

Baldwin, like many small rural areas in the Midwest, is very poor.

There’s no manufacturing and very few job opportunities. According to the most recent Census data, 29.2% of the people in Lake County (where Baldwin is) live below the poverty level; it's among the highest in all of Michigan. For young people, the statistics are even less encouraging. In 2012, 53.4% of children in Lake County lived in poverty with 93.4% of the school district’s 524 students qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunches. In this kind of environment, kids can often think that the world of higher education is far beyond their reach.

Shaddarius Scott is graduating from Baldwin Community Schools this year and headed to college in the fall. Growing up homeless, her future is one she’d never have imagined for herself.

"College was not even a thought in my mind. I was too busy worrying about the next meal and not the next step in life. With an opportunity like the Baldwin Promise, I was able to afford something that was not there for me."

Images via Starbucks.

"When you grow up in an environment where you’re told, 'You can’t be anything, you can’t afford to be anything' — to go from that to 'You can be whatever you want to be,' it’s like, 'Whoa, really?'"

As Baldwin graduates start to thrive, the Baldwin Promise has started to change the way this school district thinks about education at every level.

Now, from kindergarten onward, they prepare their students for what happens after graduation. The College Access Center helps students and parents with whatever they need — from filling out funding applications to researching schools to choosing where to go. They also organize the school’s annual Decision Day, when seniors stand in front of a cheering crowd of friends, family, and community members to announce where they’ve decided to go for higher education.

Makaylah George is one of the students in Baldwin’s graduating class this year. She applied to 13 colleges and universities. Standing in her yellow "accepted" T-shirt, she beamed. "I was accepted to all 13 of them."

Seeing these children succeed is the biggest reward for the community members who’ve invested in the Baldwin Promise.

Ellen Kerans was part of the team that came up with the Baldwin Promise. She remembers the enthusiasm people had during their early days of fundraising. "We had some grandparents say, 'I can only give $20 a month; is that enough?' and we would say 'Oh my gosh, that is more than enough.'" Within just a few months, they’d raised $160,000 — $40,000 more than their original goal.

"We didn’t anticipate the sort of grassroots support that we got. These were not people who had a lot of means, but [they] had a lot of vision."

In every way, the Baldwin Promise is succeeding.

In its first year, 14 students in the 23-person graduating class enrolled in college, up from just eight the year before. Now a full 50% of students who graduate high school in Baldwin enroll in higher education institutions within one year. That's a 13% increase from before the program began.

Getting through college is still demanding — financially, psychologically, and academically — and it’ll still be a few years before stats on college completion are available. In the meantime, there’s one more remarkable statistic worth sharing. It’s 95.3%: the percent of Baldwin parents who believe their kids will attend college because of this program.

That’s real hope — and a promise worth keeping.

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