It's getting to be back-to-school time and recent graduates of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD) will begin their freshman year at college with the first round of funding from a new tuition assistance program.
For some, one big reason they will be able to purse post-secondary education is the "Say Yes to Education" program. This is the first year Say Yes is providing tuition assistance to CMSD graduates.
Marilyn Macario, the valedictorian of Max Hayes High School, graduated with a 4.2 GPA. She applied to 18 colleges and received acceptance letters from all but one. Many offered academic scholarships, including The Ohio State University – but something was still holding Marilyn back from attending college.
"So, I was kind of debating if I should even attend college or go straight into the work field because I don't want nobody in my family to get loans to worry about paying them back,” said Macario. "So, those scholarships were very helpful but there's still a lot of money to pay off."
OSU's scholarships, like many other schools, only cover the cost of tuition. Students have to pay all their other expenses. Marilyn applied for grants and other financial assistance, but it still was not enough.
"The maximum they say that I got, which was six-thousand [dollars]," she said. "But you know, the room and board was around $12,000."
Marilyn’s parents, both immigrants from Guatemala, say they would do what it takes so she could attend college. But her dad, Javier Cifuentes, knew it would be difficult.
“I said 'no, don't worry about it',” Cifuentes said. “We're gonna make it. Don’t worry about the money. We are going to find a way that we can pay for it, you know. But I know that it's going to be a challenge for the family to find the way.”
For families like Marilyn’s, Say Yes to Education lifted that financial burden. The national non-profit chose Cleveland as its fourth community-wide location earlier this year. The group worked with local, private and philanthropic groups to raise $92 million of a $125 million goal for an endowment fund that provides tuition assistance for Cleveland Metropolitan School District students.
The fund provided tuition assistance to roughly 850 CMSD students this year, says Say Yes Executive Director Diane Downing. This fall, the group will report the total dollar amount invested in college tuition.
"Ninety-four percent of the students in the Cleveland Metropolitan District do come from families that live in poverty," said Downing. "So, any dollar gap is a very high mountain to climb. And that's why we want to be there to fill that gap."
Say Yes will also offer Marilyn, who is the first in her family to attend college, and other CMSD graduates a mentor while in college.
"The mentors are there to help," Downing said. "They are there to guide and to answer questions and they will be in contact with the students on a monthly basis."
But there is more to Say Yes than the tuition assistanace and other college-level help. The program starts preparing kids for college beginning in kindergarten with wrap-around services for students and their families.
That way students can concentrate on their studies rather than worry about issues like housing and food insecurity, Downing says.
"This fall, we will be offering wraparound services at six high schools and ten K-8 schools," Downing says. "We will be providing after school programs, mental health programs and legal services for students and families. And I should say as well, that we will have a person at each school called a family support specialist who will be helping to connect students with services and what they need to achieve and to thrive in the classroom."
Within the next four years, all CMSD schools will provide these services, Downing says.
As for Marilyn, she starts at OSU in a few weeks. Say Yes will cover the cost of tuition and OSU will cover her room and board. She can attend college and only worry about getting good grades, not money, which is a relief for the 18-year-old biology major, who hopes one day to be a cardiologist.
"I'm happy that they acknowledge my hard work," she says "I know it's not just me but other students who got the scholarships as well. It shows that our achievements are appreciated. I'm just really happy and this is just a dream that I'm living in."