Say Yes, Say Maybe; Promises versus progress in education program

After school computer class at Meachem Elementary School in Syracuse

The City of Syracuse boasts of having the first school district to be adopted by the nationally recognized "Say Yes To Education" program, but after 4 years, Say Yes has little to show in the way of progress.

Say Yes To Education is an ambitious partnership between the City of Syracuse, the Say Yes Foundation, Syracuse University and nearly 100 colleges and universities and numerous community groups. In the hopes of boosting Syracuse's dismal graduation rate of less than 46 percent, Say Yes offers the promise that every graduate can go to a participating college tuition free.

The program has an eventual goal of bringing the graduation rate to 95 percent, but after four years and millions in public and private dollars, the graduation rate remains flat and among the worst in New York State.

According to the "Cohort" measure, that is the percentage of students entering the ninth grade that goes on to graduate from high school in four years, the rate has barely budged. Six years ago the graduation rate was 47.7 percent. In 2010 it was 45.9 percent.

Pat Driscoll is the operations director for the program in Syracuse. CNY Central's Jim Kenyon asked him to give Say Yes a grade for the program's success over the past 4 years. "I would give it... probably a â??B,â??" Driscoll responded. "Because an initiative like this takes time and it is quite a lift and you're not going to get immediate results," he explained.

Say Yes supplements a school district's program by providing what Driscoll calls a "holistic" approach to education. It recognizes that students in an urban school district often come from economically disadvantaged and single parent families who may not have the resources to help their children achieve. It not only provides an array of after-school classes and tutoring, it also goes outside the classroom by helping students and their families obtain social services, free legal advise and health insurance.

Driscoll says Say Yes has seen success in Philadelphia, Harlem, Cambridge Massachusetts and Hartford Connecticut, but he says those programs only targeted small groups of students of less than 300 students. The Syracuse School District, with its 22-thousand students is the first full school district to be embraced by the Say Yes Foundation.

Driscoll points out that Say Yes has seen some indicators of success. He says certain test scores have risen in the elementary grades, more than 300 families have secured health insurance and he's seen a 20 percent increase in the number of graduates who go on to college. That's due in large part to the promise of free tuition to every student who meets their requirements and graduates from high school. Say Yes will help the student secure financial aid and then make up the difference. "Say Yes will make up the difference. It's a last dollar scholarship," Driscoll said.

While itâ??s mostly funded by private donations, Say Yes has received taxpayer support at a time when teachers in the Syracuse School District were being laid off. In the past year, Onondaga County has contributed $500 thousand to the program, the City of Syracuse committed $1 million, and the Syracuse School District allocated $5 million. So, given the lack of progress in the graduation rate, are taxpayers getting their best bang for the buck? Driscoll says, "Being able to increase test scores and graduation rates is a lift and takes time. It does not happen overnight."

When asked if Say Yes will ever achieve a 95 percent graduation rate in Syracuse, Driscoll replied, "I wouldn't go as far as saying achievable. Does everybody want to see a 95 percent graduation rate? Who wouldn't? But we also know there are a lot of factors that surround that and our hope is to make sure Say Yes continues to provide the support service so that we see graduation rates go up." Driscoll says it could take 5 to 10 years before there's a significant increase in graduation rates.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is one of the program's biggest supporters. "It didn't take 3 years for the education system to fail our children. It's going to take more than 3 years to turn it around." Miner said, "I am satisfied that every leader in this community is focused on Say Yes and doing what we can to make Say Yes successful, because if we don't have Say Yes, then what do we have?"