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How Custom Software is Powering Michigan’s Community Scholarship Program


A white man's hand holding a mobile phone showing a custom application with texting features

Since its start in 2006, The Kalamazoo Promise has offered place-based scholarships for Kalamazoo, MI students that cover up to 100% of tuition and fees for eligible Michigan institutions, apprenticeships, trade programs, community colleges, universities, and more. The program’s goal is to uplift and bring equity to the Kalamazoo, MI, community through education and economic investment. So far, the Promise has awarded over 7,000 scholars and over $180 million in scholarships!

custom database portal

Growing Pains

To manage their program and outreach over the years, their team initially built a Microsoft Access database and upgraded it to an SQL database for scholarship administration. They also relied heavily on paper forms and Excel spreadsheets to manage students and their scholarship status. But these manual processes were delaying scholarship form approvals and made it difficult to manage 1-on-1 outreach and communication with thousands of eligible students. 

The initial database was really designed for one or two people to be processing forms and making contact logs. But as our staff grew and coaches were added, we found that we were keeping lots of Excel spreadsheets with lists. I would have multiple lists to check and then need to look a student up in the database. So it got a little bit sticky. We also recognized that all our forms were paper and we wanted to make them electronic so students didn’t have to mail them in,” explained Amanda Bashore, Capacity Enhancement Manager at Kalamazoo Promise.

Finding the Right Local Software Partner

To replace their previous SQL database and manual processes, the Kalamazoo Promise team sought a custom software company to work with. Their top priority was finding a partner who had a deep understanding of their project’s objective – creating a custom portal to support their student outreach from staff and to facilitate a smoother scholarship administration process. 

In early 2020, they selected SPARK Business Works to build their custom application. One of the key reasons for this decision was the SPARK team’s strong local ties to the Kalamazoo community. 

Design and Development of Custom Application for Scholarship Management

custom database for scholoarship managmement

The primary goal of the new custom portal was to automate the scholarship process and store and manage contact information for thousands of eligible Kalamazoo students and the program’s alumni. The scholarship administration process includes collecting and processing scholarship forms, maintaining eligibility rosters for partner institutions, and processing invoices and grades to track student scholarship use. A crucial enhancement The Promise wanted in their new system was to add the ability to support staff better as they work with students through their scholarship journey.

The Journey to Progress

At the start of the project, the SPARK and Kalamazoo Promise teams spent significant time in the Discovery phase to understand the many different workflows of their team and how to translate their requirements into the right software features. 

Due to the COVID pandemic, this project required urgent additional functionality to be implemented in June of 2020.  Spark worked with The Promise to create a timely and effective electronic form submission.

“One challenge for us was that we were developing our new database as we were also developing our processes, so it caused a lot of back and forth with SPARK. For example, we knew we wanted our forms process to be electronic, but we hadn’t clearly defined what that forms process was yet.”

During the project’s design and development phase, communication was key between the two teams to talk through requirements and the project’s progress.

“I did a weekly meeting with the project manager and it was crucial to the success of this project. It helped me always know what was going on and gave me a chance to give input, bring up stuff, and talk through things,” said Bashore. “Communication has been fantastic from SPARK.”

The Launch

In March 2021, The Kalamazoo Promise launched Phase One of its project, which included the new custom database system with three main portals: 

  • Staff Portal:  Expands the functionality of The Promise scholarship administration to allow for comprehensive support of Promise students on their post-secondary journey,
  • Student Portal: Allows students to manage their scholarship journey which includes submitting scholarship forms online and viewing updates to their Promise status and approval. 
  • School Portal: Allows partner schools to review their student rosters and records of scholarship invoices and view and download student information releases.
custom microsoft access database upgrade

Ongoing Partnership to Support Growth

Following the initial launch, SPARK and Kalamazoo Promise continue to build and roll out new features to enhance the three portals’ usability and functionality.

“SPARK has been a wonderful partner. We still continue to meet every week and talk through new ideas and feature enhancements. I’m able to say, this is a sticky point for us. What are your thoughts? How doable is that? What are the potential directions that we could go in?”

From the digitization of scholarship forms to targeted outreach, SPARK continues to help Kalamazoo Promise build out custom software focused on the unique needs of its staff and new programs. SPARK is grateful for the rewarding experience of partnering with an organization with a significant impact on our local community.

“They are strategic engaged passionate leaders with a very clear idea of how their internal operations need and can scale. Thus, we’ve done some awesome work together. It feels great to help support their vision and mission!,” said Christie Vander Naald, Vice President of SPARK.

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Jill Hufford
Marketing Strategist With 10+ years of experience, Jill works alongside SPARK’s leadership, sales team, and UX/UI designers to ensure that marketing strategy and execution meet and exceed the business’s goals. connect on Linkedin

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