Few would disagree with the notion that low-income children face enormous challenges outside the traditional school system in achieving academic success. Research has confirmed the role of everything from health to summer learning opportunities, along with school-based factors including teacher and principal quality, in student achievement.
But tough budgets mean tough choices when it comes to serving children, and many communities are focusing the little money they have on in-school factors related to student performance, at the expense of the other components we know to be crucial to student success.
Say Yes To Education
Like many other districts nationwide, Syracuse is facing tough financial times. However, in Syracuse, they recognize that it's not either/or, even in times of fiscal crisis. The district is cutting about 470 jobs. Yet it still plans to spend $5 million from its budget, plus an additional $5 million in grant money, on Say Yes to Education,* an innovative program that pledges to provide college tuition for almost every city graduate. According to one student, that promise changed her entire outlook on college, including whether and where she should attend. In a district where just 42.1 percent of the class of 2008 graduated on time, that change in attitude is key. And that is why Say Yes' most public feature is the college pledge. But Say Yes' reach goes far much further.
Say Yes' mission is "to value and realize the promise and extraordinary potential of economically disadvantaged youth and families" -- hence the college pledge. But organization leaders know that children living in poverty face daunting challenges that can prevent them from even graduating high school. They also know that with holistic support, children can overcome these challenges. So the organization has organized the community's public and private resources to flood public schools with services, coordinating existing efforts and injecting some new funds. They support everything from school social workers to after- and summer-school programs, from pre-kindergarten classes to legal clinics. They secure volunteer tutors for students and refocus guidance counselors on college preparation. And they are committed to getting schools the data they need to make informed decisions about student needs.
One inspiring aspect of the Say Yes program in Syracuse is the wide variety of stakeholders invested. According to the Syracuse Post-Standard, Say Yes has united the city's most powerful people in a common quest. The Say Yes Operating Group, which meets every two weeks to review progress, includes representatives from the school district, local governments (both the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County), Syracuse University and the Syracuse Teachers Association. Other partners include the Syracuse Association of Administrators and Supervisors, the American Institutes for Research (which is donating evaluation work to the program), and a diverse group of area corporate, non-profit and philanthropic organizations.
While some area stakeholders are concerned money spent on Say Yes may be better spent elsewhere, given fiscal constraints in the area, and some wish for greater community influence on the investment of taxpayer money in the program (in addition to the school district, the city and Common Council also contribute to the program), most recognize Say Yes as an investment in the community's future. And as Mayor Stephanie Miner was recently quoted, "If we stop thinking about investments, we will perish. Say Yes is an investment, and even in the darkest financial times, people have to make investments in the future or they will have none."
It is too soon to be sure of the impact of Say Yes in Syracuse. The program's services have only been in place a couple of years, and they are not yet available citywide.
What is known is that over the past two years, nearly a thousand Syracuse high school graduates have had tuition covered at SUNY schools. (For students attending SUNY schools, Say Yes ensures they receive all available financial aid and fills the gap with a scholarship.) In addition, nearly 200 others attended private post-secondary institutions tuition-free. These schools are part of the Say Yes higher education compact, and cover tuition for Syracuse graduates whose family income is less than $75,000 a year (two schools -- Syracuse University and Cooper Union in New York City -- do not have an income limit). Families with a higher income can apply for a grant of up to $5,000 to spend at a compact school.
And Say Yes' track record bodes well for Syracuse. Across all its schools, more than 75 percent of participating students earn a high school diploma or GED, and about half earn some kind of post-secondary degree or credential -- far more than peers in similar circumstances. In Syracuse, the community is hopeful that their investment will pay similar dividends.
If you are interested in learning more about Say Yes, read an interview the Learning First Alliance conducted in 2009 with Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, Say Yes to Education President.
*Say Yes has chapters in other cities, including Philadelphia, Hartford (CT), Cambridge (MA), and New York City. Syracuse's is unique in that it is the first to implement the Say Yes program district-wide.