Promise Zone works to send HP students to college

College focus yields dramatic improvement on ACT, MME

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published August 6, 2014

HAZEL PARK — A $50,000 donation from the Sutar Sutaruk Meyer Foundation to the Hazel Park Promise Zone earlier this summer is helping to keep a good thing going.

The Promise Zone provides college scholarships to students who live in the Hazel Park school district and graduate from Hazel Park High. The scholarship can cover the full cost of tuition (minus books and other supplies) for an associate degree at Oakland Community College. If put toward other Michigan schools, students can receive up to $4,000, or $1,000 each semester for four semesters.

While the student’s GPA in high school doesn’t affect the scholarship they receive, they must maintain a 2.0 minimum GPA once in college. Private scholarships don’t count against the Promise Zone amount. However, a federal Pell grant or state TIP grant will offset the scholarship, since many Pell grants and TIP grants meet or exceed the total Promise Zone amount, anyway.

Beyond that, the amount of money a student can receive depends on how long they’ve been enrolled in Hazel Park Public Schools.

If a student enrolls in fifth grade or earlier, they’re guaranteed 100 percent of the benefit (the full $4,000); if they enroll in sixth, seventh or eighth grade, they can receive 90 percent benefit; if they enter in ninth grade, they receive 75 percent; in 10th grade, they receive 50 percent; in 11th grade, 30 percent; and in 12th grade, 20 percent.

The Hazel Park High Class of 2012 was the first to benefit from the promise. Some of the students are first-generation college-goers in their family. Helping everyone find their way is the College Access Network at Hazel Park High, which includes a full-time college advisor who helps students understand their options — including trade school and the military — and assists in paperwork and planning. College visits are also arranged. Representatives from the Promise Zone also visit the junior high and elementary schools to cultivate college aspirations at a young age.    

“One of our primary goals is to create a college-going culture in the community, and we are truly seeing that happen,” said Kayla Roney, executive director of the Hazel Park Promise Zone. “For the first time this year, our financial aid night, titled ‘How to Pay for College,’ was standing room only.”

This shift in attitude is also evident in the high school’s mandate that all juniors take an ACT prep course as part of their regular curriculum, a change that has produced a huge increase in test scores. When the Promise Zone started implementing its programming in 2011, the average ACT score in Hazel Park was 16.5; the Promise Zone set a goal to increase this number to 18.5 by 2015, and already this year they’re at 19.1.

This increased mastery of the subject material and test-taking is also seen in the student’s performance on the Michigan Merit Examination (MME). The percentage of juniors at Hazel Park High scoring “proficient or better” on the MME math test went from 13 percent in 2013 to 21 percent in 2014. In science, scores improved from 14 percent to 24 percent; in social studies, from 18 percent to 32 percent; in reading, from 43 percent to 51 percent; and in writing, from 38 percent to 51 percent. All numbers are from the state.

A Promise Zone-funded tutoring program at the high school, called PASS, is also to thank for the huge improvement in scores. Underclassmen who are failing core classes or at risk of failing are required to attend after-school tutoring with tutors who are certified high school teachers.

“The most staggering number is that previously, only about 55 percent of HPHS freshmen were on track to graduate on time after their first semester of high school, which means that they passed five or more classes. But after the first year of PASS, 87 percent of students were on track to graduate on time,” Roney said.

She and Ed Klobucher, the city manager of Hazel Park, presented these findings to the Sutar Sutaruk Meyer Foundation. In addition to the $50,000 donated to the Promise Zone for scholarships, the foundation has also pledged to donate an additional amount, yet to be determined, for the purposes of bringing the PASS program to Hazel Park Junior High, so kids can get back on track even sooner.

Previously, the Sutar Sutaruk Meyer Foundation had already donated $125,000 to the Promise Zone. And prior to that, they had funded a minor home repair program in the city of Hazel Park, as well as a police officer for one year.

“We’re all so very grateful to the (Sutar Sutaruk Meyer) family for all of the help they have given the community of Hazel Park,” Klobucher said.   

Currently, the Promise Zone is privately funded, making donations and fundraising of vital importance. Made law in 2009 by former Gov. Jennifer Granholm, the Promise Zone allows 10 economically distressed areas to recapture one-half of the increase in the state education tax, which does not affect the district’s per-pupil allocation.

However, the Promise Zone must privately fundraise for the first two years before the state chips in their contribution, and even then, it may take longer, since the city’s property values are still recovering.  

Based on current projections by the state treasury, the Hazel Park Promise Zone should start receiving contributions from the state in 2017, but it could be earlier or later. In the meantime, fundraising continues, with hopes of one day expanding to guarantee full four-year scholarships for all students.

The Promise Zone has decided to have one signature event every year, in the form of its Race to College dinner at Hazel Park Raceway, which was first held in February. It’s also planning a Community Tailgate, a cookout during the Michigan State game Oct. 18, which they’ll project on a screen. The cost will likely be $5 and will include a hotdog, bag of chips, cookies and drinks. There’ll also be activities for the kids. Organizers think it’ll be at the Hazel Park Recreation Center, but nothing is set in stone.

The Promise Zone has also done fundraising at the Hazel Park Harvest Festival and is currently working on two grants through the Michigan College Access Network.

The allure of a tuition-assisted college education has been strong. The district surveys families that move to the district, and more than 20 new families cited the Promise Zone as the reason they moved to the district this past year. Others have indicated that the Promise Zone is the main reason they have stayed in Hazel Park.

Roney said that the support of groups like the Sutar Sutaruk Meyer Foundation make all the difference.

“Words cannot express how appreciative the Hazel Park Promise Zone and College Access Network is of everything they’ve done to assist us in assisting Hazel Park students,” Roney said. “They’re truly investing in the future of our community.”