Saying Yes in Syracuse

The debate over what it takes to get low-income kids ready for college, and then to actually earn a degree, has long been polarized. Some argue that better schools alone can ensure that such students are ready to enter and finish college. Others see this view as naive, pointing to the many socioeconomic obstacles facing low-income kids along with the high costs of college.

Who's right in this debate? Both sides. Or at least that is the premise of one of the most ambitious experiments now under way in urban education.

This September, in the battered upstate New York city of Syracuse -- the very picture of postindustrial decline -- every student, from kindergarten through 12th grade, was made a tantalizing promise: Complete high school with decent grades, and you'll be guaranteed a college scholarship. The promise comes from an unusual partnership that includes Syracuse University, the city of Syracuse, and -- the instigator of the whole enterprise -- Say Yes to Education, a nonprofit bankrolled by a multimillionaire financier named George Weiss. The program is now in its second year.

By itself, the offer of a free ride through college might not make much of a difference to students in a place like Syracuse. Hardcore poverty is widespread in the city, with 78 percent of city students -- most of whom are nonwhite -- qualifying for free or reduced-price school lunches. In 2004, over half of students lived with single parents, many of whom had not gone to college themselves. And little in Syracuse encourages thoughts of a better future. The downtown streets are lined with empty stores, while shuttered factories stand silent on the outskirts of town. The city's erstwhile anchor companies, like General Electric and the Carrier Corporation, moved out long ago. The prosperity that does exist around Syracuse is mostly confined to the suburbs, in a world that can feel faraway to those stranded in the city's core.

In all, Syracuse is a nearly textbook case study of structural urban poverty, and the city's schools are predictably abysmal. Only half of the fourth-graders meet state standards in reading. For eighth-graders, that percentage drops to 41 percent. Only half of students finish high school on time.

So why dangle college scholarships before every student in Syracuse when the heartbreaking truth is that most will never come close to collecting this prize?

The answer is that the experiment in Syracuse is about much more than a guarantee of college. It is also a hugely ambitious effort to prepare kids for college -- not just by zeroing in on the usual ills of urban schools but by addressing social and health obstacles to success. While the education-reform world has long been prone to a "silver bullet" mentality, such as high-stakes testing, Say Yes is predicated on the exact opposite idea: Any effort to help inner-city kids succeed must operate on multiple fronts. It must also get to students early in life and work with them for a decade or more.

If this sounds complicated, it is -- not to mention costly and politically tough. Despite these odds, Say Yes shows every chance of succeeding.


Typical -- and Different

It's a Monday morning in September at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Syracuse. The school is filled with typical sights: lines of children holding hands as they walk down hallways, students working at round tables in cheerful classrooms, and colorful art on the walls.

Then there are some less usual sights. Several parents are studying for general-equivalency degrees in one of the adult-education classrooms. A dentist is filling cavities in a sprawling health clinic at the school. A nattily dressed lawyer is at the school, which houses a legal clinic where parents can get free legal advice, drawing on pro bono time from six law firms in the city. Social workers are on hand, too -- the Syracuse school system has nearly doubled the number that work with students and their parents.

"We have to deal with the whole child," says Principal Patricia Floyd-Echols, referring to tough life issues that affect many of her kids. "I was doing this all before. Now I have supports." Floyd-Echols says so much is going on at the Dr. King school that it almost never locks its doors.

Community schools like this are at the center of the Syracuse experiment, hosting a range of social and health supports. "We want to remove all the barriers that get in the way of kids," explains Daniel Lowengard, the superintendent of the Syracuse school system, which includes 33 schools and 20,000 students. If a child has vision problems, she can get a pair of glasses at the health clinic. If her family is facing eviction, the legal clinic may be able to help them keep their house or find public housing. If a child is staying home because a relative needs care, a social worker may be able to help a family access home-care services. And the adult-education program seeks to overcome one of the biggest barriers of all -- the fact that many parents of poor kids are poorly educated.

All these services work in tandem with a big push to strengthen academics through professional development for teachers and principals, more intensive coaching of students, after-school programs, and an extended school calendar. In addition, the Say Yes program doesn't just offer a college scholarship to every child -- in collaboration with nearly two dozen private colleges, as well as the SUNY and CUNY systems -- it also provides beefed up college counseling services that target all high school seniors. And it keeps tabs on its scholarship students throughout college to help ensure that they graduate.

While elements of the Say Yes approach have been around for years, they have never been integrated so comprehensively. Nor has an entire urban school district ever set the bar so high for itself. "Our goal is to ensure that every student in the city of Syracuse will succeed at the postsecondary level," says Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, who is president of Say Yes and the architect of its Syracuse program.


The Road to Syracuse

The origins of this experiment date back two decades, when an education scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, Norman Newberg, set out to better understand why the schools in West Philadelphia were failing so badly. One insight came when Newberg's researchers asked a cohort of students, mostly from low-income families, what they wanted to do when they finished school. Fewer than a quarter could answer the question. As Newberg wrote later, "They couldn't imagine a possible future." They didn't see their parents as role models, and the schools did little to help them envision success in life.

Newberg set out to change this. Collaborating with key stakeholders in the city -- including Penn and other colleges and local business and education leaders -- Newberg came up with a comprehensive plan to improve West Philadelphia's schools and raise the hopes, and ambitions, of students otherwise destined for failure. His multi-pronged approach focused on academic issues as well as underlying social and economic problems. It would help schools access social services, engage parents, recruit hundreds of area university students as tutors, and -- crucially -- offer college scholarships. It would also start early, trying to instill hope in students before they even got to high school. Thus was born Say Yes to Education, which Newberg saw as creating "an alternative vision for the future."

Newberg's plans got a big boost when a wealthy investment manager from Hartford, Connecticut -- and Penn alum -- George Weiss, agreed to fund the college tuition for an entire class of sixth-grade students in a West Philadelphia school, as long as they graduated from high school. That pledge was announced in spring 1987 at Belmont Elementary School. Weiss also put up funds to coordinate the other pieces of Say Yes.

Weiss was not the first person to promise a college education to poor kids. He was directly inspired by Eugene Lang, a philanthropist who made a similar promise to Harlem sixth-graders in 1981 and then set up the "I Have a Dream" Foundation to spread this promise to more students. Weiss had been thinking about emulating Lang well before he met Norman Newberg.

Weiss would ultimately put about $5 million into the Belmont students, with mixed results. Twenty students earned bachelor's degrees -- but another 20 ended up doing prison time. Two-thirds of the girls became teen mothers. Yet as bleak as these statistics were, they were better than those for comparable students. Sixty-three percent of the Belmont students graduated high school, compared to 26 percent for the class at Belmont the previous year.

Weiss was encouraged enough that he bankrolled Say Yes chapters in other cities, including Cambridge, Massachusetts, and his hometown of Hartford. These efforts also showed positive results: The Hartford chapter achieved a 72 percent graduation rate, and 77 percent of students who took part in the Cambridge chapters graduated -- rates well above the national average for comparable students. By 2004, Weiss had invested approximately $30 million into Say Yes chapters and, that year, committed another $50 million to guaranteeing scholarships to over 400 kindergartners in five Harlem schools. "It's about equality and fairness," Weiss says, explaining what motivated his giving at this level. "I don't think there's equality out there, and I don't think there's fairness."

But for all the millions in spending, Say Yes still operated on a modest scale by 2006, working with relatively small cohorts of students. That's when Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey came along and -- after an intensive study of Say Yes' results to date -- developed a plan to scale up Say Yes in multiple cities across a single state and, eventually, to take it national with federal dollars.

Schmitt-Carey is used to thinking big and building programs with a lot of moving parts. After a stint in Democratic politics, she worked with Secretary of Education Richard Riley during the 1990s and then moved on to New American Schools, a reform group chaired by former Xerox CEO David Kearns. Schmitt-Carey spent 11 years at New American Schools, eventually becoming its president, where she worked on large-scale reform projects. Along the way, she picked up an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

New York state was an obvious place to bring Say Yes to scale because a recent court victory on school-equity issues had made available a new stream of funding to urban school districts -- around $3,500 a student. Tapping this money, along with a commitment from Weiss for tens of millions of dollars, Say Yes laid plans to eventually operate in five New York cities. Syracuse was chosen as the first for a variety of factors, including an energetic chancellor at Syracuse University, Nancy Cantor, who had already built a communitywide coalition to improve local public schools.

Smith-Carey didn't have much trouble selling key stakeholders in the city on her ambitious plans. "We were kind of blown away," recalls Kim Rohadfox--Ceaser, president of the Syracuse School Board. "I was thrilled," says Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney. "It's the most comprehensive answer I've ever seen."

Mahoney, a Republican, has since found that even her constituents in Syracuse's more affluent suburbs are excited about Say Yes. "They know the cost of school failure," Mahoney says. Those costs include the county judicial system and social services, both of which deal disproportionately with high school dropouts. "If you want your property taxes to go down, help the schools succeed."

The Syracuse Teachers Association (STA) was a supporter from the very start. The union was enthusiastic about the supports Say Yes wanted to mobilize so that teachers could focus more on teaching. "If we can get rid of all the other problems, we will be able to do our job," says Anne Marie Voutsinas, president of the STA. Union members agreed to an Urban Teaching Calendar that mandated an extra month of teaching, as well as other contract changes. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association, adds, "I don't know of any other place where it is an overall district effort right through college education." To Van Roekel, who has visited Syracuse twice since Say Yes started, one of the most important aspects of the program is its success in getting all the main players in Syracuse in sync about the city's education goals. When this kind of shared ownership can be created, Van Roekel says, everyone becomes more flexible -- unions included.


The Prospects

Will it work? Some experts are skeptical -- certainly of Schmitt-Carey's most ambitious claim, which is that Say Yes will level the playing field for low-income students. Education scholar Richard Rothstein, who admires the program, cautions that it doesn't include the important element of early childhood education. Pedro Noguera, an urban education expert at New York University, notes that one of the greatest predictors of whether low-income students will finish college is their parents' educational level -- a correlation that doesn't bode well for most Syracuse students. Also, many of Syracuse's schools -- like the Dr. King School -- are almost exclusively African American, and much research points to the negative effects of racial segregation. Nothing in the Say Yes program is likely to change this reality in the near term.

Still, there is wide excitement about Say Yes among school reformers who have watched plenty of big ideas come and go. The program is already attracting national attention. In September, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Syracuse and talked in glowing terms about Say Yes.

Hope doesn't come easily to Syracuse after decades of decline. "This is a cynical city," Rohadfox-Ceaser says. But Say Yes seems to be changing that. The scholarship promise may already be luring some middle-class families back to the city -- realtors are playing up the promise in marketing homes -- and many believe that Syracuse's big investment in education will make it attractive to companies. Say Yes dovetails with other big plans that Syracuse is hatching, such as a push to attract green manufacturers to the city as well as more small businesses -- all with the goal of building a diversified economic base that can finally replace the industrial giants of yesteryear.

Even as Say Yes scales up in Syracuse, it is plotting its next steps: more cities, more students, and more promises of an alternative future. After Duncan's visit, there is talk of tapping federal dollars sooner rather than later and scaling up at a faster pace. A decade from now, if the college gap is finally closing between urban and suburban school kids, Say Yes may be one of the reasons why. 

You may also like