Shortly after becoming the City of Wilmington’s mayor in 2012, Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert, co-directors of Energize Clinton County, lit a fire under me.
They presented me with data and graphs that showed the rapidly shrinking percentage of Wilmington residents who had a college degree. For some reason, we were not attracting college graduates and our own college graduates were not returning home to become part of this community.
It was fairly easy to determine that the trend, if allowed to continue, would be harmful to the future economic growth of the community.
With the help of Rembert and Stuckert, I hosted a roundtable for young professionals. The discussion was free-wheeling and open.
We, as a community, are blessed to have those young professionals who decided to come to Wilmington. I explained to them that we wanted to know why they came to Wilmington to work and live and how we might attract more young professionals.
That meeting led to more discussion. A doctoral student from Ohio University, Anna Wiederhold (also a WHS graduate), agreed to develop a professional study of the situation. The results of her study were discussed at a Wilmington City Council meeting and were distributed to several Clinton County leaders.
The study was very interesting and helpful. It completely verified the previous data we had seen.
Around that same time period, Jan Blohm, who is now the executive director of the Clinton County Foundation, told me about a program that started in Michigan in 2005 called the Kalamazoo Promise. She asked me if we could develop a similar program in Wilmington.
Researching the program in Kalamazoo, I discovered that their program essentially promised any student, graduating from a Kalamazoo high school, a college education. Of course grades and admission criteria had to be met, but a student in Kalamazoo, despite their family’s financial situation, knew that a college degree was possible for them.
Phone calls were made. A group of interested people were contacted and invited to meet to discuss the possibilities of developing something similar in Wilmington. The ball started rolling.
Our meetings was hosted by Dr. Jim Reynolds, president of Wilmington College. We included Dr. Kevin Boys, president of Southern State Community College, and Ron Sexton, superintendent of Wilmington City Schools, both of whom represented our educational community. Chris Schock, executive director of Clinton County Regional Planning Commission, Rob Jaehnig, Wilmington City Council, and Jan Blohm also attended.
Blohm presented her ideas and explained the Kalamazoo Promise.
Ron Sexton brought reality to the discussion by relating a true story from the Wilmington Middle School.
A guidance counselor was talking to a bright young student in the seventh grade about the classes he would be taking the following year in high school. The counselor was recommending some college preparatory courses that would prepare him for a successful college experience.
The youngster told the counselor, “I’m not going to college. No one in my family has ever gone to college. My folks don’t have enough money to send me anywhere to college. So, just forget about it. It’s just not going to happen.”
With that, the kid completely wrote-off any chance for higher education.
Ron said he wanted to be able to look that kid in the eye and tell him that he could definitely go to college. Ron wanted all of his school counselors to be able to tell any student, “Keep your grades up and stay out of trouble and you can go to college. That’s our promise to you.”
We looked across the table at each other and, as a group, decided to make it happen.
The program, Wilmington Succeeds, has been successful. With amazing dedication to our youth and a commitment to help them succeed, Wilmington College and Southern State Community College have crafted a program that can be used to assure the availability of a college education to almost any Wilmington High School student that meets their admission requirements.
Our colleges, high school and community leaders are committed to the continued success of the Wilmington Succeeds program. Our goal should always be simple. We want counselors to be able to look any middle school student directly in the eye and tell them with all confidence, “Yes! You can.”
College should be within anyone’s reach. It’s wonderful that Wilmington College and Southern State Community College have stepped forward to make dreams come true.
For more information, visit the website – www.wilmington.edu\succeed or email Wilmington College at AFFORDINGWC@wilmington.edu.
Randy Riley is a former Mayor of Wilmington and a local resident of more than 40 years.