Without the support services of Say Yes, a student’s success is left more to chance. The prospect of a college education at the end of the line may provide enough motivation for some students to stay on track. But for others, everyday struggles can make staying the course difficult.
One mother, who cleveland.com is not identifying to avoid embarrassing her daughters, wants the two girls, ages 15 and 17, to continue their education after high school. The daughters do, too, but they both have struggled since their mother broke up with her husband of many years.
“They started, you know, just talking sassy,” the mother said, “and staying out.”
“They were missing a lot of school,” she added.
Then the younger daughter got caught taking marijuana to school. “I was really frustrated,” the mother said.
After that, a Say Yes family support specialist started working with the family and the girls’ attitudes have improved. The specialist also helped with the living conditions at home, arranging for the acquisition of bunk beds for the mother’s 7-year-old daughter and 3-year-old granddaughter, both of whom had been sharing her bed.
“She even brought cat food for my cat,” the mother said.
The East High School building in Buffalo. East High is being phased out because of poor performance and East Community High School, located in the same building, is taking its place. A third high school called Pathways is also in the building. It is for older students entering high school.
Trauma and generational poverty are tough to overcome
The need for serious intervention by Say Yes staff is not unusual in Buffalo, including in the largely poor, African-American section of the city that feeds East High School. The school is being phased out for poor performance and is being replaced in the same building with a new school, East Community High School.
“Traumatized kids have a lot of issues that they come with, and that trauma just doesn’t fall off at the door,” said East Community Principal Darryl King. “So they need support, emotional support, and Say Yes people fall right in wherever it’s needed.”
King said Say Yes does a great job putting the right people on the job.
Say Yes wants to shore up families so the children can thrive in school
The idea is to shore up the family, said King, so the children can be as successful as possible in school. But he cautions that change will take time. “Any time you’re talking about high levels of trauma, there is no quick fix,” he said.
The East High/East Community building, which also houses a third high school for those older students entering high school, is home to one of several parent centers in the Buffalo school system where adults can go for help with such things as improving life skills or finding a job.
Say Yes employees run the parent centers.
Mental health clinics in every school
Say Yes specialists have a number of experts they can turn to when it comes to propping up struggling families. Partners include mental health clinics that are now in every school, providing quicker access to periodic professional counseling.
“So this allows us to get to the students right where they are all day, and provide that therapy during a school period as opposed to the kids having to go out,” said Elizabeth Woike-Ganga, chief operating officer with BestSelf Behavioral Health, which runs a number of the in-school clinics for Say Yes.
And that therapy can be crucial. One teenager who was reportedly considering suicide (at least according to a text message his mother received from the boy’s stepbrother) was referred to counseling by a family support specialist.
The specialist also worked with the mother to develop a “safety plan” that included getting cords, pills and other things that the boy could use to hurt himself out of the boy’s house.
Sheila Ayala, a parent of children in Buffalo public schools, has been helped by the legal services provided by Say Yes to the school district.
Free legal services help families navigate difficult situations
Thanks to Say Yes, several of the schools have in-house legal service clinics where parents can go for help with civil disputes or concerns, such as those related to immigration or housing. Sheila Ayala, who recently came to Buffalo from Puerto Rico and speaks little English, got help after she was having difficulty getting her autistic son enrolled in the appropriate school.
Last year, her 10-year-old son, Carlos Perales, was struggling in his large fourth grade class and would bang his head on the desk, said Maggy Rivera-Rusch, an Erie County Bar Association paralegal who was translating for Ayala.
Ayala managed to get her son switched to a smaller class with other children like himself. But when it came time to get him in a special program starting in fifth grade, she got the runaround.
That’s when Rivera-Rusch was able to put Ayala in touch with an attorney from Neighborhood Legal Services in Buffalo who successfully advocated on Ayala’s behalf.
David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.
Say Yes support extends to after achool
All 55 schools also have after-school programs funded by the Buffalo school district. The programs provide academic support, enrichment such as art, music and science, as well as organized recreation, according to David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo.
”It’s just common intuition that you’re better off having kids in a structured program, built off some really good quality programming that we know is going to benefit kids, as opposed to being home watching TV or, even worse, out on the corner getting in trouble,” Rust said.
Rust knows from experience. As a former deputy commissioner for youth services/social services in Erie County, he was responsible for the juvenile detention center. He remembers waves of juveniles rolling through the jail during the after-school hours after being picked up for dealing marijuana, shoplifting from the mall or other minor crimes.
“And the assessment was these were kids that had a lot of potential, still,” Rust said. “They just didn’t have better things to do with their time, so they found themselves in situations that ultimately are going to have a negative impact on their life.”
Daniel Robertson heads the Say Yes mentoring program that operates in Buffalo’s public schools.
Mentors are there to help graduates make good college choices
Nurturing by the Say Yes program does not end once students graduate from high school. Mentors make sure the students make good choices for post-secondary education and that they get the most out of the experience.
The Say Yes mentoring program in Buffalo has been in place since 2015, and about 80 students have been matched with mentors.
Daniel Robertson, a former family support specialist with Say Yes, runs the mentoring program. He also is a mentor to two students in the program.
Along with running the mentoring program, Robertson is a mentor to two students, including Trey Holmes (left) who is going to Medaille University this fall.
Mentors also provide support to the students once they enter college
One of Robertson’s charges is Trey Holmes, 17, who admits he coasted through high school until his senior year. But now Trey wants to get serious about a career in real estate and operating other businesses, such as a barbershop.
Holmes was leaning toward attending Morgan State University in Baltimore, but after talking with Robertson, he considered the benefit of going to a Buffalo school – in this case, Medaille University. By enrolling in the school, which is among the private colleges that have an arrangement with Say Yes Buffalo, his tuition will be covered and he will be closer to home and his support network.
“Trey tends to like the nicer things in life,” Robertson said, and supporting himself in that way would have been much more difficult if he also had to pay for school.
Robertson also counseled Holmes on the importance of avoiding people, even friends from his neighborhood, who could disrupt his plans for the future.
“It’s a trap that a lot of young men fall into,” he said.