updated 9/4/2009 3:10:20 PM ET 2009-09-04T19:10:20

A tiny rural school district where nine out of 10 students come from needy families is offering high school graduates $5,000 a year for four years to fulfill their college dreams.

Baldwin Superintendent Randy Howes will hold a ceremony on Tuesday to launch the program to 25 students set to graduate next spring. All students in Baldwin schools will be covered by the new scholarship offer of up to $20,000.

The community of just more than 1,000 people is the first in Michigan to follow the example of the highly popular Kalamazoo Promise, an anonymously funded scholarship that has attracted new residents to the city eager to get all or most of their children's tuition paid at public universities or community colleges in Michigan.

Kalamazoo's program has inspired at least 19 similar programs nationwide since its inception in November 2005, while more than 50 other communities are exploring the idea. Ten Michigan communities have gotten state approval this year to set up scholarship programs. But Baldwin's is the only one ready to go as the new school year gets under way.

Community needs to raise $120,000
The community must raise the $120,000 needed to fund the scholarship for the first two years. After that, it will be able to collect a portion of the state education property tax revenue that residents and businesses pay. It also plans to look for outside funding.

"Baldwin doesn't have a multimillionaire who can do this with writing just one check, or at least they haven't found that person," said Chuck Wilbur, special education adviser to Gov. Jennifer Granholm.

Instead, the people and businesses in Baldwin have pumped in nearly $100,000 toward the project so far, including $17,000 pledged at school employees' meetings just this week.

"We've had an outpouring of support from businesses and private individuals and graduates," Howes said.

Few communities need the boost for students as much as Baldwin, where the town's largest employer, a privately owned prison, shut down in 2005 after the state ended its contract there. Lake County's unemployment rate is 18.7 percent, higher even than the overall state rate of 15 percent.

The area, about 30 miles east of Lake Michigan, was a stop on the Underground Railroad in the 1800s and is home to Idlewild, a former haven for black entertainment during the segregation era.

"We're filled with lakes and rivers and streams and state forests and national forests," Howes said, noting the county fills up on weekends with 35,000 summer residents but doesn't have a single stoplight. "And yet the community of Baldwin, from a profile perspective, looks like a lot of inner cities."

Generations of poverty
Fifty percent of the Baldwin school district's students are white, 42 black and 8 percent Hispanic. Ninety-two percent its 560 students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and generations of poverty stretch across ethnic lines.

About half of Baldwin High School graduates each year go on to attend community college or a university, Howes said, a percentage he thinks will shoot up with the scholarship. Graduates can qualify for up to $5,000 a year for four years to help pay tuition as long as they maintain a 2.0 grade point average in college and carry a full course load. Part-time students can get smaller grants.

Residency is a requirement to get the grant. Students who have attended school in the district for four years can get the full amount. Those who have attended school for three years can get 75 percent of the grant, while those there two years can get 50 percent and those there just one year, a quarter.

Scholarships such as the Michigan Promise Scholarship — currently in limbo as state budget talks drag on — and federal Pell grants would be counted toward tuition first, with the Baldwin Promise scholarship filling in what's needed up to $5,000 a year.

The prison owners, GEO Group Inc. of Florida, are finishing up a $60 million expansion and hope to reopen the North Lake Correctional Facility soon, offering jobs paying at least $40,000 annually and giving those who might be lured by the Baldwin Promise a place to work, Howes said.

"It's like the stars are aligning for Baldwin," he added. "There's a lot of really good news in a kind of glum economic climate in this tiny little rural place out in the middle of nowhere."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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