Scholarship Promise Gives More Than Hope

The Say Yes Syracuse program wants to offer students more academic support and access to social services, starting in kindergarten. Aligning resources hasn’t been easy.

Vinh Ho, who grew up in a low-income Syracuse family, has a full Say Yes Syracuse scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania where he is studying urban affairs.
National Journal
Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Oct. 7, 2013, 2 a.m.

Vinh Ho al­ways knew he was go­ing to col­lege. Even though Eng­lish wasn’t his first lan­guage, even though his mom has only a grade-school edu­ca­tion, and even though he grew up in a city where 51 per­cent of teen­agers drop out of high school, Ho worked hard enough and was smart enough to earn a place at the Uni­versity at Pennsylvania.

His ho­met­own of Syra­cuse, N.Y., wants to in­still that kind of aca­dem­ic am­bi­tion in every stu­dent. That’s no easy task for the faded in­dus­tri­al city, in which more in­ner-city kids drop out of high school than make it to col­lege gradu­ation. But since 2008, a city­wide col­lab­or­a­tion called Say Yes Syra­cuse has prom­ised full-tu­ition col­lege schol­ar­ships to every gradu­ate of the Syra­cuse City School Dis­trict, and has ramped up sup­port ser­vices for stu­dents start­ing in kinder­garten.

In a county that is 81 per­cent white, 74 per­cent of SC­SD stu­dents are non­white. Eighty per­cent of chil­dren in SC­SD schools are low-in­come, and many, like Ho, are first-gen­er­a­tion Amer­ic­ans. Most in­ner-city kids are Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, but the city — like so many across Amer­ica as demo­graph­ics shift — has also seen rap­id growth in the num­ber of His­pan­ics.

Al­though many Syra­cuse kids are eli­gible for sig­ni­fic­ant state and fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid, go­ing to col­lege has nev­er been a com­munity norm. That has be­come a big prob­lem. Fifty years ago, it was pos­sible for a young per­son without much edu­ca­tion to earn a good liv­ing in up­state New York. Today, em­ploy­ers statewide want to see col­lege cre­den­tials — and man­u­fac­tur­ers that re­main in the area are de­mand­ing ap­plic­ants with a high­er skill set. When Pres­id­ent Obama vis­ited Syra­cuse earli­er this sum­mer, he called the city’s col­lege-go­ing fo­cus crit­ic­al to its fu­ture.

Cit­ies like Pitt­s­burgh and Kala­ma­zoo, Mich., have also made schol­ar­ship prom­ises, but Syra­cuse’s ap­proach — de­signed by non­profit Say Yes to Edu­ca­tion — goes fur­ther. “In our view, it really plays to the full com­plex­ity of the is­sues — of what stu­dents need, and what it really means to cre­ate the kind of op­por­tun­ity for kids in an urb­an dis­trict that their sub­urb­an peers get,” says Nancy Can­tor, chan­cel­lor of Syra­cuse Uni­versity.

Free tu­ition won’t be much help if stu­dents aren’t pre­pared for col­lege. In 2011, just 13 per­cent of SC­SD stu­dents scored high enough on state tests to be con­sidered col­lege-ready, and less than a third of stu­dents in grades three through eight met state pro­fi­ciency stand­ards, ac­cord­ing to SC­SD. Eighty-five per­cent of young people in­car­cer­ated in Onond­aga County in 2010-11 came from the city schools.

The Say Yes Tu­ition Schol­ar­ship takes away one bar­ri­er to stu­dent suc­cess by el­ev­at­ing col­lege as a goal. The schol­ar­ship cov­ers re­main­ing tu­ition, after need-based gov­ern­ment sup­port, and in­sti­tu­tion­al aid for all Syra­cuse stu­dents ad­mit­ted to New York state in­sti­tu­tions. Cooper Uni­on, based in New York City, and Syra­cuse Uni­versity of­fer all SC­SD stu­dents a full ride. Stu­dents whose fam­il­ies earn less than $75,000 per year are guar­an­teed full tu­ition at 54 private uni­versit­ies that have al­lied with Say Yes, in­clud­ing Penn, where Ho is a seni­or and an urb­an-stud­ies ma­jor. Since the fall of 2009, over $11 mil­lion in schol­ar­ships has been awar­ded to more than 2,000 SC­SD gradu­ates.

In May, the first class of 47 Syra­cuse Say Yes gradu­ates walked away from SU without any stu­dent loans and a dip­loma with a tick­et price of $140,000 in tu­ition and fees. More than 150 are now en­rolled at the cam­pus on the hill over­look­ing their ho­met­own.

Across Syra­cuse, stake­hold­ers have pulled to­geth­er to sup­port stu­dents aca­dem­ic­ally and help needy fam­il­ies ac­cess so­cial ser­vices. SU of­fers free SAT tu­tor­ing, for ex­ample. Say Yes to Edu­ca­tion and Onond­aga Com­munity Col­lege run a pre­col­lege sum­mer ori­ent­a­tion for high school gradu­ates. And a grant from the Wal­lace Found­a­tion helped Say Yes ex­tend the school day for kids from kinder­garten through fifth grade.

Say Yes Syra­cuse has es­tab­lished free leg­al clin­ics staffed by vo­lun­teer at­tor­neys, made it pos­sible for fam­il­ies to get health in­sur­ance ad­vice on school sites, and, along with the school dis­trict, es­tab­lished a “par­ent uni­versity” to provide par­ents with classes on everything from dia­betes pre­ven­tion to un­der­stand­ing the SC­SD code of con­duct.

Es­tab­lish­ing a com­pre­hens­ive K-12 pro­gram has been hampered by a pain­ful re­ces­sion, a change in school dis­trict lead­er­ship, and state budget cuts. “Our school dis­trict, like all school dis­tricts in New York, dealt with severe state cut­backs that re­quired the lay­ing off of lit­er­ally hun­dreds of people,” says Tim Car­roll, Syra­cuse’s dir­ect­or of may­or­al ini­ti­at­ives.

Ex­clud­ing the cost of schol­ar­ships, Say Yes Syra­cuse has cost more than $88 mil­lion since 2008, with more than $28 mil­lion provided by the na­tion­al Say Yes or­gan­iz­a­tion. The school dis­trict, county, and city have provided about $56 mil­lion, and com­pan­ies, phil­an­throp­ists, and oth­er donors have giv­en about $2.4 mil­lion.

While pre­serving fund­ing for Say Yes, in re­cent years SC­SD has re­duced the num­ber of teach­ing as­sist­ants, cut spend­ing on spe­cial edu­ca­tion, in­creased class sizes, and re­duced art, mu­sic, and phys­ic­al edu­ca­tion pro­grams, ac­cord­ing to a re­port from Say Yes to Edu­ca­tion.

Com­munity mem­bers want to know wheth­er the in­vest­ment in Say Yes Syra­cuse is worth it. Say Yes points to in­dic­at­ors such as the de­cline in ninth-grade dro­pouts, and to in­di­vidu­als, like Ho and his young­er sis­ter, who have taken ad­vant­age of schol­ar­ships and ser­vices. Sup­port­ers also point to in­tan­gible be­ne­fits, like the un­usu­al col­lab­or­a­tion between an urb­an school dis­trict and county gov­ern­ment.

It’s too soon to say wheth­er Say Yes Syra­cuse is really boost­ing high­er-edu­ca­tion at­tain­ment, says Kim­berly Kendzi­ora, an ana­lyst at the Amer­ic­an In­sti­tutes for Re­search. “Part of the chal­lenge is, we don’t have good im­ple­ment­a­tion data. We don’t know which kids got Say Yes ser­vices and which kids didn’t,” Kendzi­ora says. The com­ing rol­lout of brand new cur­riculum and test­ing stand­ards in New York state will also make it harder to track K-12 test-score trends.

Stu­dents like Ho con­tin­ue to be an an­om­aly in Syra­cuse. Most Say Yes Schol­ars to date have ma­tric­u­lated at less-com­pet­it­ive state col­leges, with 41 per­cent head­ing to Onond­aga Com­munity Col­lege. For the stu­dents who can get in­to highly ranked col­leges, like the 14 per­cent who have ma­tric­u­lated at SU, the chances of gradu­at­ing with a four-year de­gree are high. Say Yes is hop­ing that its com­pre­hens­ive ap­proach will help mo­tiv­ate stu­dents who head to schools like Onond­aga CC, where only 34 per­cent of stu­dents gradu­ate or trans­fer to four-year col­leges with­in three years.

Say Yes, trum­pet­ing its suc­cess stor­ies, says that for 2011-12, 89 per­cent of schol­ar­ship re­cip­i­ents en­rolled in four-year private col­leges, 67 per­cent en­rolled in four-year pub­lic col­leges, and 66 per­cent en­rolled in two-year col­leges pro­ceeded to their sopho­more year, com­pared with re­spect­ive na­tion­al per­sist­ence av­er­ages of 67 per­cent, 65 per­cent, and 56 per­cent.

Car­roll is in­spired by many Say Yes Schol­ars who re­turn to Syra­cuse to work at the Say Yes Sum­mer Camp for ele­ment­ary school­ers. Its heart­warm­ing, he says, to see older kids serving as ment­ors and role mod­els. “You just hope that over the long term, that’s go­ing to make a dif­fer­ent Syra­cuse,” he says.


Cor­rec­tion: Ho’s year in school has been re­vised.

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