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Free tuition program sends students to college

Say Yes to Education fund supports services for students from kindergarten through 12th grade
More than 160 Syracuse students participated in the Say Yes to Education Young Authors Series, and wrote their own books.
More than 160 Syracuse students participated in the Say Yes to Education Young Authors Series, and wrote their own books.

A citywide school turnaround program that offers full-tuition college scholarships for urban students has seen early success in increasing high school test scores and college attendance.

Say Yes to Education, a national nonprofit founded in 1987, creates and helps fund support services for students from kindergarten through 12th grade, with the goal of getting more urban students to graduate high school and college. It works with school administrators to implement extended class time, mentoring, tutoring, and psychological services in schools.

Through local partners, it also offers health care and legal assistance for families. All students in the district are automatically enrolled in the program.

The goal is to embed self-sustaining community services that will prepare more students for college and, in turn, boost local economies, says Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of Say Yes to Education.

“In most urban settings, when talking about education, everyone organizes around the goal of increasing test scores,” Schmitt-Carey says. “But that isn’t enough—it doesn’t lead to transformational change. We need postsecondary completion.”

Early success in Syracuse

There are early signs of progress in Syracuse, the first to begin a citywide rollout of the program, where graduation rates in 2012 were under 48 percent. Syracuse started the program in 2008, and Buffalo followed in 2011. They are the only two cities to implement the program across the entire school district.

Ninth grade dropout rates in Syracuse decreased by 44 percent from 2009 to 2010, and ninth grade state algebra exam pass rates are up by more than 30 percent. And there has been a dramatic increase in students signing up for more rigorous courses, Schmitt-Carey says.

Also, the number of Syracuse students who went to college rose to 1,241 in fall 2011 from 501 in fall 2009, when Say Yes was first implemented in the district. Figures for 2012-2013 are not yet available.

Say Yes has provided $28 million for its Syracuse program since 2008, not including scholarships. The district, county, and city—despite making cuts to other programs—gave $56 million, and companies and other donors provided $2.4 million.

Say Yes helped open a mental health clinic in every Syracuse school. All elementary and K8 schools now have social workers, with a social worker-to-student ratio of 1 to 200, compared to 1 to 500 prior to implementing the program. Of the 315 students who did not have health insurance in 2009, 91 percent have now applied through Say Yes and the Salvation Army.

Local colleges, including Syracuse University, provide tutoring, summer school, and other programs to Syracuse school students.

Say Yes also works with schools in New York City, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Mass., and Hartford, Conn. The nonprofit looked for communities that would “commit to collaborative governance—building a new type of civic infrastructure that can more efficiently work to get young people and their families the kind of support services and enrichment opportunities that will allow them to achieve at higher levels,” Schmitt-Carey says.

College incentives

Free tuition gives students a powerful incentive to succeed academically. “We put a North Star out there that if students do their part by working hard and graduating, they will have free tuition to all New York state schools and over 50 private colleges,” Schmitt-Carey says.

Any Say Yes student who goes to a New York state school is eligible for free tuition, regardless of income level. For most of the state’s private colleges, the scholarships are open for students whose parents make less than $75,000 per year. More than 80 percent of families in Syracuse and Buffalo qualify, Schmitt-Carey says.

“These are communities with very serious challenges that are starting from a low bar,” Schmitt-Carey says. “We’ve built the infrastructure to deliver quality programs over the last five years, and the results are in the right direction.”