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Building a Dream with a Promise

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Lisa Palanca

After ten years of the Kalamazoo Promise, I got to see firsthand, what a beautiful gift it is. I ran into my former neighbors last night. They had their 18-year-old son with them. Their daughters are both in college now, thanks largely to the Kalamazoo Promise. I will never forget the day they moved in 9 years ago. Fresh from open country spaces in Vicksburg, to a neighborhood within the Kalamazoo city limits. The draw was this community and the gifts it gives its students.

There is no question that the Kalamazoo Promise is more like a dream than a promise. For many young parents, who are squirreling their money away in 529s, money market savings, or in the old mattress, this incredible offering eases the stress and enriches the family. Yet, even with the obstacle of tuition payments removed, some students and families do not take advantage of the wonderful things Kalamazoo is offering. Maybe they just don’t know. Struggling students or those with lower grades need to understand that alongside the Kalamazoo Promise are a myriad of networks ready to assist in realizing the dream. This community takes care of its students. Unlike many others, Kalamazoo puts education as Priority ONE, and sees it as a valuable asset to sustaining its infrastructure for years to come.

So what is the hold up? Why is it that some families aren’t using this to their utmost advantage?

We can lay blame on nearly anything that can be found in a modern household. Computers, hand held games, texting, food chemicals, soda pop, too many sweets, too much gluten, parents who care too much and parents who care too little. Searching for the answer seems to be as difficult as finding a needle in a haystack. Yet, I believe we all know the answer. It is GRIT.

Angela Duckworth explains GRIT in her recent Ted Talk as: a predictor of success and perseverance for long term goals. She explains the more the goal matters to a person, the more likely they will work through obstacles to get to it. But isn’t that something we have known all along? When you really want something, you will move heaven and earth to get it. We can certainly agree that Dr. Duckworth is correct in her data that says grittier kids are more likely to graduate from school. That it is not talent or IQ that makes you gritty. It is merely the desire of a defined goal.

Where does a person get this wonderful GRIT? Can it be bought? Does it come with instructions?

Well, as my grandmother used to say: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” John Goddard states: “People don’t often get what they want out of life because they don’t know what they want out of life.”

GRIT is innate. It is a drive that smolders within every human. Some will never even know it is there. It sometimes takes the focus of a mentor to fan the flame. Where do we find such people?

In Kalamazoo, they are a “google search” away. You will find not 1, but 28 pages offering mentorship in careers ranging from fireman to astronaut. Many are sponsored by businesses or foundations, some from professional athletes that are giving back, and some from our fine local colleges and universities. All with the common focus: to assist and guide students to find their gritty areas. They foster goals and guide students to fan their own flame.

One of the brightest lights I have found, who is fighting for the cause, is right in our own backyard. He is a teacher whose name is Chase Mielke. He has not only defined GRIT but has written a book for teachers that offers strategies which promote its development. This young educator is a passionate leader who practices what he preaches. He has an unbelievable drive and creates innovative methods. He writes a blog which he posts expressly to assist other teachers who may need ideas. He has GRIT.

If there is one thing that Angela Duckworth shared that I can take to the bank, it is that we are all in a GROWTH MINDSET. The ability to learn is not fixed to a particular time in our lives. It can change with effort. She explains that failure is not a permanent condition. All of us have the ability to be wrong and can figure out a way of starting over again when things aren’t working out.

I hadn’t planned on learning so much when I ventured into putting together a student leadership program. Yet, as a veteran teacher, I have the learned ability to spot life skills deficits and have acquired an arsenal of strategies to help plug the holes. I feel that is not only a service to offer, but my duty to give back. There are students being sidetracked by the lure of fast and easy rewards. Instilling GRIT takes time.

I am reminded each day that we are all lifelong learners. That it is in seeking reachable goals that our passions are fulfilled. This GRIT mindset has to be an everyday thing. You really do need these things to succeed. Desire and definition of a reachable goal can kick away the roadblocks to success. Perhaps we should change the name of the Kalamazoo Promise to the Kalamazoo Dream. We promise to provide the means, but the secret is that we also provide the support needed to get to the goal. It allows students to DREAM BIG! All good coaches know that winners aren’t just given jerseys and a place on the team. They have proven their GRIT by the drive that began as a small ember and was fanned to flame by an encouraging mentor.

How lucky are the students in Kalamazoo? It really does seem like a dream.

As Kalamazoo Leaders and community members, we are preparing our students for life, and in doing so, we can be assured we will have leaders for the next generation.

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