Say Yes to Education gives Buffalo and Syracuse students a chance to “be something important in life”

BUFFALO, NY – Honey Brown didn’t think college was in her future because the cost scared her and her classmates away from even considering it.

“When you see that tuition, it’s ‘Oh my god’,” said Brown, who just graduated from Buffalo’s East Community High School, where 90% of students are financially disadvantaged.

But Say Yes to Education, the college scholarship program that came to Buffalo in 2011 and that could soon start in Cleveland, offered a path.

The program guarantees scholarships for graduates of the district that, when added to other financial aid, would cover the rest of tuition. For students of a school in a neighborhood of vacant lots, storefront churches and liquor stores that resembles much of Cleveland’s own East Side, that makes a huge difference.

Honey Brown, who just graduated from East Community High School in Buffalo, says that Say Yes to Education made college possible for her, when it was not before. (Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)


Brown said the chance to go to college for free – beyond paying for books and dorms on her own – was “life-changing.” She started taking advantage of afterschool tutoring and Saturday classes that Say Yes helped create at her school, focusing more on grasping a now-reachable goal.

This fall, she said, she will go to Medaille College, a private liberal-arts in the city.

“The burden…I feel it’s lifted off of you,” she said. “Without Say Yes, I wouldn’t be going to college.”

Say Yes coming to Cleveland?

Brown is a model of what Say Yes to Education has tried to accomplish for students in the Buffalo and Syracuse, N,Y., school districts, as well as in Greensboro, N.C. Founded by New York financier George Weiss, Say Yes is one of several “college promise” programs nationwide that aims to help more underprivileged students attend college.

It’s a program that has been accompanied with increased high school graduation and college enrollment rates in both Buffalo and Syracuse, though college completion data is incomplete. The program started in Greensboro with last year’s senior class, so it is too young there to show any trend

Though Say Yes has not officially announced a partnership with Cleveland, the Cleveland schools, Cuyahoga County, the city and several non-profits have reached an intense planning stage with the program. A formal announcement could be a year away.

The Plain Dealer visited both Syracuse and Buffalo last month to hear from students and families about Say Yes, its academic interventions in schools and how much effect the scholarships are having. Both districts share a few key traits with Cleveland – all are post-industrial cities with high poverty and population loss, as well as a history of poor scores on state tests.

In Greensboro, serious financial issues are forcing parts of the promise to be broken. When scholarship costs last year far exceeded projections, Say Yes had to change eligibility rules. We will be tracking that situation as Cleveland makes its own financial projections later this year.

What we found in both Syracuse and Buffalo were parents and students grateful for help with college bills, regardless of their income. Many students said that knowing they can now afford college made them pay more attention to school and that the scholarships are life-changing.

At the same time, the program is not reaching all students. Though officials in Cleveland and the other cities want the lure of free college to inspire parents and students even at young ages, it’s not always taking hold.

A chance to be important

East Community High School junior Ibrahim Mberwa said that knowing Say Yes to Education will make sure he can afford college lets him know he has a chance do do something important in his life. (Chuck Crow/The Plain Dealer)


Ibrahim Mberwa, a junior at Brown’s school, said he would probably be considering college without Say Yes, but the scholarship made it a definite plan.

“If it’s given, why not take it?” he asked.

Estella Anderson, the senior class president at the school agreed.

“Free doesn’t come every day,” said Anderson, who will attend Genesee Community College next fall. “It was a big relief to my parents.”

The students don’t treat the scholarship as a handout, but as a lift to make themselves better.

“Without Say Yes, it would have been money hanging over my head and several years of loans,” Mberwa said. “Now I got opportunities. Without this, I would be just a regular kid, just another person in society who has no meaning. Now with Say Yes, I can probably be something important in life.”

Many in Syracuse appreciate the scholarships, as well – even well-connected families.

Susan Boyle, a member of Syracuse’s Common Council, that city’s city council, has sent three of her children to college using Say Yes scholarships. All three went to private schools that are part of the Say Yes network, including Syracuse University.

Boyle said she might have moved to a suburban district with a better reputation or put her kids in private school, were it not for Say Yes.

“If all four of our kids went to Syracuse University, Say Yes would have represented just under $1 million for us,” she said. “The numbers were just too good to not stay in the city and invest in the city schools.”

Some have reservations

Not all families make that decision, though. Anne Helfer has just one child and both she and her husband work, so she has more resources than many families in the city. They pulled their son out of the district and put him in  Catholic school because of the disruptive behavior they see from some students in district schools.

“It (the scholarship) is an intriguing idea,” Helfer said. “If we both weren’t working, we might have kept him in the district.”

Some Buffalo parents had the same caution.  John Johnson is hesitant to send his daughter to a district high school, even though she is in second grade and there are several years to decide.

His daughter would be in line for huge scholarship help under Buffalo’s sliding scale, which is based on how long a student is in the district or charter schools in the city. In Syracuse, students attending the district or select charters from 10th through 12th grade receive full benefits.

“Anywhere else would be better,” he said as he lined up for a concert at his daughter’s school, Lovejoy Discovery School

Cleveland hopes it has enough high school choices to avoid that issue here if Say Yes comes. Cleveland has created a handful magnet schools students must test into, then several specialized small high schools – like its digital arts high school, a new aviation and maritime high school and a school based at MetroHealth Medical Center – as varied school choices to retain families.

Cleveland officials also hope that Say Yes would create a college-going culture here that would filter down into all families and grades. That’s happening some in Buffalo, but not fully. Most of the parents lining up with Johnson were unaware their elementary-age children could someday receive scholarships.

Neither city makes the scholarships a dominant message to the public. Syracuse schools have Say Yes banners outside, but we saw none outside four Buffalo schools we visited. Say Yes has used billboards to promote the scholarships and some services, but not constantly.

Syracuse Superintendent Jaime Alicea meets with that city’s school board last month. Alicea believes Say Yes to Education has changed the culture of his district.


Syracuse Superintendent Jaime Alicea, though, believes the message is reaching parents.

“It has changed the culture a lot,” said Alicea, a former teacher and principal in the district. “The families are buying it. The kids are buying it.”

What the numbers show

Graduation rates:

Since Say Yes launched in Syracuse in 2009, graduation rates have bumped up from just over 50% to 64% in the most recent official numbers.

“Are we there yet? No,” said Alicea. “But we are keeping more kids engaged and more kids are staying in high school.”

In Buffalo, graduation rates have risen from around 56% when Say Yes was announced in 2011 to 64% today.

Say Yes Buffalo Executive Director David Rust said graduation rates have often been under 50% in the city, so the improvement is more dramatic, just not enough.

“That’s a great change, but we’re still not graduating 1/3 of our kids,” he said.

He is most proud of cutting the difference in graduation rates between black students and white students from 17% to 7% today. That gap has vanished in Syracuse.

Since much of the increase happened over the last two years, it’s unclear how much is from Say Yes. New York adjusted its state graduation requirements in 2016 to give  vocational students and some students with disabilities more ways to graduate, beyond just passing state tests.

The statewide graduation rate rose 1.3 percentage points from 2015 to 2016, topping off a 12-point gain over the past 10 years.

College enrollment rates:

Enrollment rates in both cities are up, though not dramatically enough to be sure it is not yearly variations. But while modest, these slight increases come as enrollment rates nationally have fallen in recent years.

In Buffalo, these have risen from 62% before Say Yes to 65% today. In Syracuse, rates that bounced around from the high 50s to low 60s are now in the low- to mid-60s.

A team of Syracuse  University researchers who have studied Say Yes and its effects told a conference in 2015 that they did not believe Say Yes was affecting graduation in Buffalo, but was increasing college attendance.

UPDATE: July, 13, 2017

A 2017 update on that research, with data through 2014, shows Say Yes leading to academic gains and increased college attendance in Buffalo. Graduation rates there are rising for black students, researchers found, but not white students.

Peter Dunn, who helps oversee the Syracuse scholarship fund as president of the Central New York Community Foundation, said Cleveland residents should not expect any quick changes from Say Yes, but structural ones that play out over several years.

“Changing urban school districts takes time,” Dunn said. “Be prepared for the need for perseverance.”

Rust had the same message from Buffalo.

“I think the Say Yes story takes 25 years to be told,” Rust said. “We see this as a generational change in our community.”

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