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Education
Learning Curve is WKSU’s reporting initiative examining the past, present and future of K-12 public education in Ohio.

More Cleveland Students Were Enrolling in College, Then COVID-19 Hit

a photo of Cleveland students
Patrick O'Donnell
/
for WCPN
College Now brought counselors and a bus serving as a mobile application center to various Cleveland-area locations to help get local students back on track with college applications.

The Say Yes to Education college scholarship and student support program was supposed to be a game-changer for the Cleveland school district, and for a city in need of better-educated residents.

It hasn’t worked out like organizers hoped. 
After a promising start in 2019, COVID-19 cut off Say Yes at the knees in the spring of 2020, thwarting efforts to place more Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) high school graduates in college. Instead of growing college enrollment, Say Yes organizers couldn’t stop the pandemic from driving enrollment for this fall to just 36 percent of new graduates, the lowest in years and below when Say Yes started in Cleveland.

“We’re not where we were a year ago or two years when we started this,” said Helen Williams, who heads education efforts for the Cleveland Foundation and has been a backer of Say Yes for several years.

“What I’ve said to people is, it is what it is. This has been a major disaster in our country,” Williams said. “It’s like a tornado has come through, but it has lasted a year… And so things aren’t going to be the same. We're not going to get the same results and we can’t beat ourselves up.”

Some encouraging signs
With projections and hopes dashed, organizers and donors who have committed millions to the efforts to increase college enrollment are now resetting goals. And there are some encouraging signs. A deeper dive into college attendance numbers and the Say Yes support structure suggests that Say Yes has softened the blow of COVID-19. And the Say Yes student support system might be key to helping students and the city bounce back post-pandemic.

“The biggest advantage I think Cleveland, Ohio, has over similar, Rust Belt, poor cities... is infrastructure that we put in place with Say Yes,” said Lee Friedman, CEO of College Now of Greater Cleveland, a non-profit that offers college counseling for local students. “I think we’d be in totally worse shape. And I think the startup, once this thing gets behind us, would be much more difficult.”  

New York-based Say Yes to Education is one of more than 200 “college promise” programs operating nationally, in which donors or nonprofits promise to pay the college tuition of qualifying high school graduates. Say Yes, which also partners with school districts in Greensboro, N.C., and Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., launched in Cleveland in early 2019, offering to cover tuition at any state and at many private colleges in Ohio for all CMSD graduates.

Say Yes also adds so-called wraparound support services that many similar promise programs don’t: after-school programs, free legal clinics for families, health care in schools and full-time staff that connect students and parents to social services when needed.

Say Yes had a promising start in Cleveland. In the fall of 2019, its first year, 45 percent of CMSD graduates enrolled in college, up from about 40 percent the previous few years. 

Even more students from the Class of 2020 were in line to enroll. Then COVID-19 hit.

Pandemic deals a blow
When schools closed last spring, the after-school programs Say Yes created to help students were cut off from the kids they were supposed to be helping. College counselors couldn’t see students in school anymore. And colleges themselves moved classes online, wiping out the campus experience that draws many students.

Friedman said her College Now counselors were working with new graduates last summer, coaxing them to enroll, but many backed out because of the pandemic.

“There were kids in June or July that told us that they were going postsecondary, had a plan, that did not show up,” Friedman said. “When we circled back, it was almost always because they had to get a job, or they had some other family issue, or they decided they should wait and not go until they could do it all on campus. They didn’t want to do virtual.”

"...they had to get a job, or they had some other family issue, or they decided they should wait and not go until they could do it all on campus. They didn’t want to do virtual."
Lee Friedman, College Now


The Cleveland Foundation, the largest donor to the Say Yes Cleveland scholarship fund, even had to stop fundraising for Say Yes to concentrate instead on raising money for COVID-19 relief. The foundation had raised $93 million of the full $125 million the scholarship fund needs before COVID-19 hit, but hasn’t narrowed that gap in the past year.

Still, there are indications Say Yes prevented even greater declines in college enrollment that similar districts around the country saw.

CMSD’s 20 percent drop in college enrollment is a little below the 21.7 percent drop for all high schools, nationwide. But that includes high-income students too. Cleveland’s drop is a lot lower than the 32.6 percent for other high-poverty cities nationally.

Cleveland student enrollment in four-year colleges fell about 10 percent, again matching the national decline but falling only half as much as it did for other low-income districts.

The greatest damage – and the place where Say Yes seems to have had little impact – was at community colleges, where 36 percent fewer CMSD graduates enrolled last fall, nearly matching the 37 percent nationally for low-income students.

College gains maintained
Another win for Say Yes came in how few of Cleveland’s 2019 high school graduates who had already started college dropped out during the pandemic. About 59 percent of first-year college students from Cleveland returned to in-person or virtual college classes for the fall 2020 semester, down just two points from the 61 percent the previous year.

Why were the losses so low? The support provided by Say Yes and local schools like Cuyahoga County Community College and Cleveland State University likely helped. There are coaches and staff at each school who contact students frequently, trying to help with any outside problems that get in the way of their education. And College Now recruits volunteers to serve as mentors for each student, talking or emailing with them a few times a year about challenges.

Kayla Cunningham, a 2019 graduate of Cleveland’s Rhodes High School, failed some classes at Tri-C last spring because she couldn’t fix computer issues quickly when her college classes went online.

But Say Yes and college advisors stuck with her and she remains in school, taking business classes so she can better run a photography studio after she graduates.

“It made a big difference,” Cunningham said of Say Yes. “Before, I thought no one cared about you in college. Like, when it came to college, you’re on your own. But Say Yes has never left our side... We get emails every day about everything. [When] they know that we’re struggling, they give us emails about tutoring... they tell us which days we can go. They’ll give us encouraging words. Like, some of our meetings are literally just meetings to check up on us. It’s not even important meetings. They’re just to check up on us.”

Friedman said College Now is continuing to try to reach students who had hoped to go to college last fall but didn’t. The goal is to entice them to enroll now using Say Yes scholarships.

College Now is also pushing to increase college enrollment for the coming fall. Normally, 35 College Now advisors would be in high schools, helping students with college applications and federal financial aid paperwork. But CMSD’s buildings were closed until late March. Applications have fallen, Friedman said, though she did not have data on the drop.

Say Yes has tried to remind students and parents to apply by sending postcards to every senior’s home. And College Now even brought counselors and a bus to sites around the community as a mobile application center.

20210327_140239828_iOS.jpg
Patrick O'Donnell
Students get help with college applications and student financial aid applications in College Now's mobile application center, a converted school bus rented from BEST Community Resource Center, at the Boys & Girls Clubs location on Broadway Avenue.

The Say Yes support programs at schools that helped students during the pandemic offer hope for the future. Say Yes not only kept its wraparound support going during school shutdowns last spring and this school year, but expanded the programs and shifted how they work.

Just 16 CMSD schools had a “family support specialist,” the Say Yes term for the full-time staff that work with families, during the 2019-20 school year. When COVID-19 struck, those specialists continued the work, calling on the phone and texting even while schools were closed. 

“Although they had to work remotely, they kept up with students and families and parents,” said Diane Downing, executive director of Say Yes Cleveland. “They provided food. They made trips to homes to drop food off. They made sure that students had the technology they needed, either from school distributions or delivering them again to homes. They connected them to Legal Aid and the Cleveland Metropolitan Bar when families had issues and they connected them to counseling when they needed it. So, we didn’t stop.” 

Say Yes and CMSD also stuck to the four-year plan to expand to more schools, hiring 26 more family support specialists early last summer, even though schools were closed. Say Yes plans to add 30 more this summer and 30 more in 2022.

Say Yes had also worked with community organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs, AmeriCorps, chess clubs, a soccer and poetry club and others in after-school programs. Many of these nonprofits stepped up to host or provide services at learning “pods” across the city where students could go during the day while schools were closed, be safe, receive meals and do lessons via Wi-Fi.

Downing said Say Yes is working with CMSD now on how to support expanded summer school starting in June and resuming afterschool programs in the fall.

By fall, 72 CMSD and partnering charter schools will have staff and full wraparound services for students through Say Yes, compared to the 16 when COVID-19 hit.

All of those structures, organizers say, will help students rebound after the pandemic.

“We’re prepared now,” Friedman said.

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