Cleveland's New 'Say Yes to Education' Program Can Find Encouragement from Buffalo's Experience

Jan 25, 2019

Beginning February 4th, students from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District will be able to apply for college scholarships through "Say Yes Cleveland," a new effort to ensure all city students have the opportunity for post-secondary education. Cleveland is the fourth community wide chapter of the New York City-based "Say Yes to Education." One of the other chapters is in Buffalo. Education reporter Eileen Buckley at NPR member station WBFO in Buffalo, shared some of what the city has experienced during six years of "Say Yes Buffalo."

In announcing "Say Yes Cleveland," community leaders noted how the program is about more than college scholarships. Lee Friedman, the head of College Now Greater Cleveland, said, "It is a really comprehensive and systemic change in the way you manage the services available to students on-time, case-managed in the building." 

Eileen Buckley is a senior reporter at WBFO in Buffalo. She has covered education for many years.
Credit WBFO

Buckley, who has covered news in Buffalo for three decades and has done numerous stories about "Say Yes Buffalo," describes what some of those services have included in Buffalo Public Schools.

"We now have an after school program in every city school, which we didn’t have before. There’s a boys and men of color initiative to help boys and teens achieve, stay in school, stay focused. Say Yes has really looked at the need for these wraparound services to support pre-K through high school graduation first, because so many are lacking in their home life. They’ve set up legal clinics, mental health clinics."

These efforts have helped improve the graduation rate in Buffalo Public Schools, although Buckley notes there are many other things the district has been doing to improve outcomes. 

"This came in in 2012. At the time, graduation rates and academic achievement were very poor. Even by 2015 we were still in a state where 25 public schools were placed in state receivership and the district was truly struggling. The graduation rate was 47 percent. Today it’s a little over 64 percent and some of that is attributed to "Say Yes Buffalo." If you're going to go to college and get this assistance you have to stay and finish high school first. So that's been an incentive for students and families."

The program continues to offer support beyond high school, as students take on college. In Buffalo, there is a college kickoff program for Say Yes scholars every summer. "This is really important because for some of these students they're the first to go to college, so it's all brand new for them. One of the possible negative things the program has experienced is getting the students to stay in college and graduate." The event offers students tips to help them make the leap from high school to college as this WBFO video shows:

College Now Greater Cleveland has had success pairing mentors with college students. It will oversee the mentorship component for "Say Yes Cleveland," and Friedman anticipates they will need many more mentors. 

"It's not a huge time commitment. All you have to do is have had a college experience yourself. We have people mentoring from 350 different companies, volunteers, retirees, kids right out of college. I mean it's been really remarkable actually," Friedman said. In the six years that College Now has been running the mentoring program, college graduation rates have increased by 20 percent according to Friedman.

In Buffalo, Buckley notes that when Say Yes first arrived it seemed like all that the program promised might be too good to be true. "Initially, I was very skeptical. I just couldn't help thinking 'are we really going to be able to make this work in our city?' At that point we were still in an economic downturn. But Say Yes has continued to build funders. It's gotten a lot of support from foundations, many colleges are now supporting it. The only really negative thing I've seen so far is trying to keep that college graduation rate up as much as they're working on that high school graduation rate."

Say Yes invests heavily in partner communities ($15 million in Cleveland) to set up the infrastructure necessary for success. Communities are tasked with raising the funds to cover the cost of the scholarships. Say Yes Buffalo has raised more than $38 million of a $100 million dollar goal. Cleveland organizers impressed Say Yes with its fundraising success. They've already raised nearly $90 million dollars with support from more than 40 foundations and businesses as well as individual donors. The plan is to raise another $35 million over the next five years—enough to fund scholarships for at least 25 years.