College & Workforce Readiness

School Improvement Is Citywide Effort in Syracuse

By Sarah D. Sparks — August 06, 2013 10 min read
Say YES summer camp counselor M'Tia Williams, 19, back, laughs during a game with campers in Syracuse, New York, in late July. Williams, a former Say Yes camper, is a Sophomore at Onondaga Community College and hopes to transfer to Syracuse University.
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For Syracuse, N.Y., “educating the whole child” is not just a mantra for school improvement but a strategy to save a struggling urban community, too.

Five years ago, Syracuse became the first city to adopt, citywide, a national education partnership model called Say Yes to Education, which provides academic, legal, social, and health supports to families and students from preschool all the way through college, culminating in free tuition for any of the district’s 21,000 students who graduate from high school and want to attend college.

In the process, the Syracuse Say Yes initiative offers a rare look at what the popular push for holistic, community-centered education reform can look like in practice, both in the ongoing challenges of meeting students’ and families’ needs, and in the surprising effects on communities.

According to 2012 data from the Census Bureau, “for the first time in 50 years, the Syracuse population has stabilized,” said Ann Rooney, a member of the Say Yes task force and the deputy executive for human services for Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse. “That’s one thing we as a community all focus on.”

See Also

Explore the supports Say Yes has aligned throughout the city in an interactive presentation, Syracuse: A Citywide Education Experiment.

Syracuse’s struggles mirror those of post-industrial communities nationwide. The city of just more than 145,000 has steadily lost industry and residents over the years, and the remaining population—especially the public school population—is poor and diverse. The median household income is just over $30,000 a year, more than $20,000 below the state median. More than eight out of 10 students in the district qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Officials regularly point to the city’s beleaguered school system—19 of the district’s 32 schools have been designated as “priority schools” by the state for their persistently low academic performance, and seven are in some stage of turnaround—as a source of the problem and a potential solution.


M’Tia Williams
Currently studying communications at Onondaga Community College

Ms. Williams participated in the ‘Say Yes’ college-bridge program, the Summer Success Academy, and “it was by far the best experience I’d ever had, because it got me a jump-start to college. Not only did I get to take the one uncredited class I needed out of the way, but I was able to take an art class that was so much fun. It got me to meet some of the people who were also going to OCC, so if I ever felt kind of lost, I could go to the other classmates and teachers.” This summer, she came back to become a counselor.

Photo by Heather Ainsworth for Education Week

“A city like this, a Rust Belt city, it’s taken decades to get to where it is, in terms of losing all its industry, people moving to different ways to make a living,” said Kevin Ahern, the president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, which is affiliated with both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. “It’s going to take a lot to turn around, but you’ve got to pay a lot of attention to your schools if you are going to do any of that.”

Ms. Rooney echoed the sentiment: “In Onondaga County, we have 6,000 people on welfare. Only 37 of them have a college degree; only 27 percent had a high school diploma,” she said. “Who’s on welfare? It’s often [people who as children] were not making the grade academically” in K-12. “If we can move the needle even a little, it makes a big difference.”

College Lure

The potential for sending more students to college is what first drew city officials to the New York City-based Say Yes to Education Inc., which promised full tuition for all public high school graduates in return for the city implementing civic and education reforms.

“The public grabbed onto the idea of the [college] tuition as the centerpiece, and for the first couple of years, that’s all they knew,” said Douglas P. Biklen, the education dean at Syracuse University. “But we were getting students on health insurance, getting mental-health care, tutoring, a summer camp that didn’t exist before. These are all part of this bigger model. It’s a much more holistic approach than what you see in most district efforts.”

Universal scholarship programs have been gaining in popularity in the past decade, as college costs soar and many school districts face dwindling enrollment. First and most notable among them is the Kalamazoo, Mich., “Promise Scholarship,” in which anonymous donors pledged to pay all or nearly all of college tuition for students who attend the district schools from early grades through high school. The program sparked similar initiatives in cities such as Detroit and Denver and helped inspire Say Yes. However, later studies of the Kalamazoo project found that while it boosted district enrollment and graduation rates, half the scholarship students dropped out of college without completing a degree.

Web of Supports

The cornerstones of the Say Yes to Education model are the academic, legal, social, and health services it provides to Syracuse families and students from preschool through college.

SOURCE: Education Week

Say Yes Inc. has created Promise-style scholarships in communities such as Philadelphia and New York City’s Harlem for more than 20 years, but Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the president of Say Yes, said she became convinced that the initiative would be more effective when integrated citywide.

A 2005 evaluation of Say Yes to Education’s work in Philadelphia—where the initiative was focused on a select group of students and parents in some of the public schools—found that over 18 months, participating 3rd graders had eight to 10 fewer missed days of school, better behavior, and significantly better math and reading performance than the school and district averages. However, during the same time, staff at the schools became mistrustful of the program, believing it created a separate group of students and parents who did not fit with the rest of the school culture, making it difficult to sustain local support for the program over time.

“After a lot of years of working on this, we were not seeing a breaking of the cycle of poverty,” Ms. Schmitt-Carey said. Students who went to college on the scholarships weren’t necessarily prepared to complete their postsecondary studies, for example.“We realized the scholarship alone was not going to be enough.”

Comprehensive Services

Lauren Brush graduated from New York University in May with a bachelor's degree in classical voice.

Lauren Brush
Graduated from New York University in May with a bachelor’s degree in classical voice

“My older sisters weren’t interested, but going into high school, I was really motivated for school; I always wanted to go to college. But we are a working-class family, and my mom lost her job while I was in high school. It was really hard to even think about going to college when you know your family is struggling financially.” Because of the scholarship, Ms. Brush was able to study opera at college, both in the city and as a part of a study-abroad program in Prague. “And it’s funny, when I went to school, it kind of motivated my mom to go to school. So, even though she wasn’t a beneficiary of the scholarship, because she didn’t have to pay for my schooling, that opened the door for her to go. So, technically I’m a first-generation college student, but now she’s gone to Onondaga Community College for health technology,” completing an associate degree in 2012—a year before Ms. Bush graduated.

Photo by Heather Ainsworth for Education Week

In Syracuse, the group got a chance to try a much more comprehensive approach. Say Yes doesn’t fund every aspect of Syracuse’s initiative, but it coordinates services through a representative at each school and a biweekly task force of leaders from the district, the teachers’ union, local universities, state and county social-services agencies, and mental- and physical-health offices.

“The discussion was initially around the benefit of the scholarship,” recalled Ms. Rooney, “but it quickly turned into the benefit of the scholarship is no benefit if students are not able to get that [college] diploma.”

The scope of the initiative quickly became more comprehensive, Mr. Biklen and others recalled. “We tried to think, what do the children of upper-middle-class families enjoy?” Mr. Biklen said. “Music lessons, camp, a lot of after-school enrichment provided for them. So we try to replicate that.”

The city launched a 3,000-student summer camp, including academic enrichment and creative arts. More than 100 local college students are hired as counselors and mentors, some of them Say Yes scholars themselves.

For the district, Say Yes paid for a curriculum and funding audit, which showed little link between the district’s curriculum and New York state’s college-readiness standards. It helped the district plan a curriculum overhaul and add two additional hours a week of class as well as after-school programs in kindergarten through 5th grades, with more planned for middle school in coming years.

Syracuse University also now provides free teacher training to launch more Advanced Placement courses, as well as summer teacher professional-development institutes in writing, mathematics, and science. The university also created a special education training program with two schools.

“There is a laserlike focus on the needs of students, but not just the academic needs you see in some districts,” said Syracuse schools Superintendent Sharon L. Contreras. The district implemented a student-monitoring system, which includes 15 K-12 indicators in the categories of academic progress, social-emotional development, and physical and mental health.

“We look at disciplinary referrals,” she said, “but we also look at health. A sick child has difficulty learning, a child with dental problems has difficulty sitting in class.”

Six schools now have full-service dental and physical-health clinics, with screening available in all schools and health-insurance support available for families who don’t have it.

The state’s office of mental health partnered with Say Yes to provide mental-health clinics in 23 of the 32 district schools so far, as well as social workers to help individual families and provide home visits, according to Jennifer Parmelee, the director of child and youth services for Onondaga County’s office of mental health and coordinator of its community promise-zone project. Through the school clinics, the county has begun training staff at 14 schools in problem-solving protocols such as Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports.

Clearing Distractions

Alex Minnoe, studying physical education at the State University of New York at Brockport

Alex Minnoe
Studying physical education at the State University of New York at Brockport

Mr. Minnoe said he always knew he wanted to teach physical education, but “having the opportunity for [Say Yes] to pay my tuition was huge.” For the past three summers, he has been a youth-enrichment-services counselor for the Say Yes summer camp and said it’s “a great experience, because I’m an education major, and every day I’ve taught soccer and softball in the afternoons. It gives me the opportunity to get more experience working with the kids, help them get that extra bit of education during the summer so they don’t lose what they get throughout the year. It’s kind of my way of giving back, but it’s also helping me a great deal.”

Photo by Heather Ainsworth for Education Week

The local bar association also created legal clinics in several high-need schools and community centers, where lawyers volunteer their time to help students and their parents with any problem that could affect students’ schooling, from immigration to visitation and custody disputes to landlord-tenant problems.

“When you look at the array of services, it allows the district to concentrate on learning,” said Kim S. Bradley, the chief of staff for the Syracuse district.

After high school graduation, Say Yes scholars can participate in a six-week college-preparation session, including academic support to help them test out of remedial classes, financial planning, filling out forms, gathering supplies, and packing for school—even a ride to move onto campus for students who don’t have one. This spring, as the first Say Yes class of four-year college students graduated, Say Yes also launched job shadowing and internship help, as well as résumé workshops.

“People are more open to partnership, and we see ourselves as more of a continuum than all these individual players doing their own stuff,” said Monique R. Fletcher, the community executive director of Say Yes to Education in Syracuse.

The effects so far have been positive. Since the initiative began in the 2008-09 school year, the 9th grade dropout rate has fallen by nearly half, to 281 students; high school graduation rates have risen 10 percent, to 55 percent in 2011; and college certification and degree earning grew by a third, from 451 students to 579 in 2012. Those numbers still fall well below most federal and state progress targets for the school district, however.

Impact Beyond Schools

Outside of school, juvenile crime rates also fell from 580 arrests a year to 398 between 2008 and 2012, and housing prices in the city have risen 6.4 percent, according to the Trulia Real Estate website. While many factors likely contribute to the city’s improving real estate market—not the least of which is the gradual improvement in the economy overall—Don Radke, the owner of FM Realty Group in Syracuse and the former president of the Greater Syracuse Association of Realtors, credits the promise of universal college scholarships as being a draw for families with school-age children.

More than 100 colleges and universities in the state now offer free tuition for Say Yes scholars, and dozens of private universities, including the University of Notre Dame, Duke University, and Georgetown University, have pledged substantially reduced tuition, Mr. Biklen said.

Say Yes Inc. has been steadily drawing down its start-up support in Syracuse, which has six years to make the program self-sufficient. Cities like nearby Buffalo, which are also trying to launch citywide Say Yes initiatives, are watching Syracuse’s fate closely.

The city has already passed its first test: The mayor, school superintendent, and teachers’ union president have all turned over since the initiative began, and their successors have bought into the strategy.

“The biggest thing, I think, is we’ve seen a dramatic change in the culture of the city, in terms of the leadership of the city being all on the same page,” the teachers’ union’s Mr. Ahern said. “In urban districts like this, we tend to churn programs, chase grant money for a few years, and then do something else. Over the years, we have faced a lot of challenges as a district, ... but we’ve all stayed together despite that and figured ways to do things to make it sustainable.”

Political and financial sustainability, Superintendent Contreras said, “still is a huge problem and keeps me up at night.”

She pointed to state budget cuts that forced the district to eliminate 1,000 staff positions in the past five years, just as it was working to roll out the new Say Yes services and monitoring. “But at least we’re able to advocate together,” she said. “The other key people don’t say, ‘Well, the school district has a problem’ and leave me hanging. The city has never backed down from this. That’s key to the success and sustainability.”

For example, Huntington Family Centers, a social-services provider in the city, hired school social workers that the district had to lay off and was able to continue services to students.

“Many of the families may never know how richly the Say Yes model supported them, but their students are graduating because of the support system,” Ms. Contreras said.

Coverage of school climate and student behavior and engagement is supported in part by grants from the Atlantic Philanthropies, the NoVo Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the California Endowment. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the August 07, 2013 edition of Education Week as Syracuse ‘Says Yes’ to Whole Child


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