For many recipients of Say Yes Buffalo scholarships, attending college can be a joyous achievement. But once on campus, the reality can be difficult. It’s a serious problem: The nonprofit, which guarantees public school students from Buffalo free college tuition, has found that many students drop out.
College can be challenging for anyone. But for students who may not have enough to eat or who live in neighborhoods surrounded by violence or who are academically unprepared for the rigors of post-secondary education, the prospect can quickly become overwhelming.
They are the same challenges the Buffalo Public School system has graduating kids out of high school, as Superintendent Kriner Cash noted, only they are magnified.
Cash is attempting to solve these problems with his “New Education Bargain.” Educators, through Cash’s strong leadership, have implemented strategies to ensure those coming through the system will have the skills to succeed in life. That work is showing some results, though too many students still enter college without the base of knowledge they need for success.
Enter the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations in the world. Because of its generosity, students who benefit from Say Yes’ own remarkable philanthropy will have a better chance to overcome the additional challenges that the demands of college pose to those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The foundation has awarded a $2.9 million grant to Say Yes Buffalo to create five major initiatives that will provide:
• Additional “college success” counselors on the campuses of Buffalo State, Medaille, Villa Maria and Erie Community College.
• On-campus mental health clinics staffed by licensed clinicians.
• Mandatory college-transition curriculum for all Buffalo students graduating high school.
• A comprehensive data system to track student needs.
• “Near-peer” mentors – recent high school graduates currently in college – who will be embedded in Buffalo high schools.
Say Yes scholarships pay for what is not covered by state, federal and institutional aid designated toward tuition for students of Buffalo public and charter schools.
David Rust, Say Yes Buffalo executive director, was recently quoted in this newspaper about challenges students may have with food, transportation or even needing more math or English tutoring. Buffalo State President Katherine Conway-Turner offered an apt description of the problem that occurs after some students receive scholarships: “So once you open the door, how do you walk through the door and stay on the path?”
Not every high school graduate should continue to college; plenty of well-paying careers await those more interested in, or better suited to, other work. But for those who do, the kind of wraparound services coming to Buffalo may help form the bridge to success.
Buffalo is one of only five U.S. communities to receive this grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It’s important for the city school system to keep improving, and that should happen with Cash’s focus on better preparing elementary grade students for high school. But in the meantime, the Gates foundation’s focus may make a difference for hundreds of the city’s students.