If successful, it will provide a pathway to post-secondary education for students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), many of whom have limited access to such education.
Most certainly, it will improve attendance and graduation rates in a school district that has been struggling to overcome some very real issues. It could elevate property values in our area. It could even have a dramatic economic impact as well.
But will the Say Yes to Education initiative come to fruition? And will it have all the benefits that our community leaders are touting?
Only time will tell. But we are on the right path.
The core of the Say Yes to Education initiative is a scholarship component that provides high school graduates of the CMSD funds that can be used by eligible students admitted to and enrolled in an in-state public community college, university or Pell-eligible certificate program. Students would also have access to the Say Yes Higher Education Compact, a network of over 100 private colleges in the country. Each of these entities has agreed to cover the tuition for Say Yes students from families earning less than $75,000.
There is also a secondary component of the initiative, which includes mental and physical health and academic and social/emotional support services, providing students with access to two hours of extended day time, summer programming, “even legal clinics in schools to help families with non-criminal legal matters that might create disruption,” says Lee Friedman, CEO of College Now Greater Cleveland, one of the six convening partners backing the initiative.
Naturally, the two key components of the initiative are funding and collaborative governance.
“Currently, there is a local team that is helping to manage and coordinate pre-launch efforts — including fundraising and collaborative governance,” says Gene Chasin, president and COO of the national Say Yes to Education organization. “If Cleveland is selected as a chapter, that pre-launch structure would evolve into a Community Leadership Council and a local Operating Committee — and the latter would meet every two weeks or so. In addition, an executive director would be hired locally to oversee the work in Cleveland.”
As of press time, an executive search was already being conducted and was expected to be completed in early 2019. The first scholarships could be offered to graduates of the CMSD as early as the 2019 graduating class if all conditions are met.
Although Cleveland is well on its way to becoming a Say Yes city, it is a multi-layered and complex process. Cleveland will be the fourth entity to receive such a designation. And, other communities that currently have the designation are still facing challenges.
In a June 2018 report from the Brookings Institution called “Gown towns: A case study of Say Yes to Education” authors Richard V. Reeves, Katherine Guyot and Edward Rodrigue explore the experience of Say Yes to Education, which works at a city level in Syracuse and Buffalo and at a county level in Guilford County, North Carolina. Drawing on case studies in each of those three communities, the authors offer four lessons for reformers hoping to expand access to higher education:
- Collaboration depends on local leadership
- Collective governance needs a powerful cabinet of decision makers
- Securing credible commitment is important for sustainability
- Data is the single most important ingredient of reform
Although the study is a cautionary tale about communities being overly optimistic about the impact and operation of Say Yes initiatives, Cleveland does have some advantages over Syracuse, Buffalo and Guilford County.
“In fact, we have a tremendous competitive advantage,” says Friedman, whose organization will likely administer the college scholarship program. “We have a long history of public/private partnerships here, a very robust not-for-profit structure. And our county, city and school district leadership are working together on a collaborative basis to make sure our kids get every opportunity.”
That’s the reason Cleveland moved to the head of the Say Yes class so quickly.
“Say Yes to Education has an extensive due diligence process to ensure the community not only understands the Say Yes theory of action but is well-positioned to work collaboratively to implement it, and with the requisite conditions to ensure success,” says Chasin.
After a detailed RFP (request for proposal) submission, the Say Yes team came to Cleveland several times, talked to community leaders and others, to see and hear firsthand what’s happening and where Clevelanders want to be in the future.
“We narrowed the list to two cities and after more vetting, our national board selected Cleveland to enter the pre-launch phase,” says Chasin.
Led by six convening partners that, in addition to College Now Greater Cleveland mentioned earlier, include: The City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, the Cleveland Foundation, the United Way of Greater Cleveland and the CMSD, Cleveland officially entered the due diligence process in fall of 2015, after several years of researching potential opportunities. Cleveland was selected to enter the pre-launch phase in May of 2017, according to Cleveland's Path to Say Yes spokesperson Ann Gynn.
“At that point, Cleveland was no longer in competition with other cities for the opportunity,” says Gynn. “The city now is working to complete the pre-launch requirements established by Say Yes for its national board to decide on a chapter announcement.”
Following the pre-launch announcement from Say Yes national in May of 2017, the convening partners created a working group — and a local Planning Committee was created with diverse representation to oversee the local task forces and other work being done to complete the pre-launch requirements. The committee not only includes representation from the six convening partners but other entities, from the business community to parents and a recent CMSD alumnus. Among the many requirements of the initiative, at least 60 percent of the scholarship fund must be raised in the pre-launch phase.
“Every community in which we work is different and has its own unique opportunities,” says Chasin. “At Say Yes, our approach involves the type of collaboration where everybody is at the table and works to address and find solutions to challenges identified by the local task forces and others.
“We have already seen Cleveland’s willingness to embrace that approach — to work together, to share data, to realign existing resources for maximum impact — to address the bigger goal of ensuring students are well prepared for success in post secondary education,” he adds.
Another key requirement is that the governance structure and leadership be assembled prior to launch. So, if Cleveland is named a Say Yes Chapter, the Community Leadership Council and Operating Committee would begin meeting shortly thereafter. And the existing task forces and working group would continue their relevant work. That work includes planning in more detail how the core services would be rolled out to all schools in the first five years.
Should Cleveland ultimately be selected as a Say Yes city, the most immediate impact would be on the CMSD.
“Say Yes to Education will allow us to accelerate the things that are already working in the district,” says Eric S. Gordon, CEO of the CMSD.
For example, the district has increased its graduation rate by 22.4 percentage points over the past seven years from 52.2 percent in 2011 to 74.6 percent in 2018, a 43 percent increase. Over the last three years the district has also decreased off-track attendance (the number of students missing more than 10 days of school in a single year) by 22 percent.
“With the addition of the resources and supports for students and their families that Say Yes will bring over time, we believe we will be able to move these and other important indicators of school success even more quickly,” Gordon adds.
But the Say Yes to Education Initiative is about much more than helping out those in need and leveling the playing field in terms of economic access to education. It’s also about training a better, more educated and talented workforce, which is essential to our area’s future economic growth.
“If Cleveland is selected as a Say Yes city, it would help us stop decline, stabilize our neighborhoods and ensure growth for the future,” says Cleveland Mayor Frank G. Jackson. “We can create an opportunity for Cleveland students, regardless of economic circumstance, to go to college. Say Yes would help support their growth and aid in high-quality educational opportunities for those who traditionally would not have access. This is an excellent example of community partnerships contributing to equitable prosperity for all Clevelanders.”
And it’s not just Cleveland that will benefit, but our entire area.
“Making sure our children have the right post secondary opportunities and get on a path to a career is crucial,” says Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish. “We cannot envision a county where everyone has the chance to thrive and succeed without putting in some kind of structure that can make that happen. There are many children who simply don’t have access to the supports and finances required to succeed at college or in technical or vocational education or aren’t even encouraged to try. Say Yes aims to address that.”
Long-term economic impact
While the obvious short-term benefits will be increased enrollment in public schools, fewer dropouts and more high school seniors seeking post secondary opportunities, the long-term economic impact may not be felt for a while.
“How long it takes to see measurable progress will probably take at least a few years,” says Friedman. “Remember these kids are still in school. They have to go to college or some other post secondary program and finish before they enter the workforce.”
Still, our local government organizations are more than willing to make the investment in our future.
“We got into this early because we care deeply about the issue and we know from what we’ve seen in other communities that Say Yes is a positive way to address this,” says Budish. “Like many long-term issues before this county. Say Yes is going to provide benefits in the longer run. Just like our Universal Pre-K investment which provides $23 million in scholarships for kids with lower income families. Say Yes should pay off in increased opportunities and in building futures for young people who will then become higher earners, more engaged citizens in our community.”
As one of the primary stakeholders in the initiative, which Budish stresses is a truly collaborative effort, the county will play one of the lead roles in establishing and providing the services that will support students.
“This makes sense because we either already provide services or we are significant funders of those services,” Budish adds. “So, a key part of the Say Yes model is taking a data driven look at what services a student needs in order to succeed in school and to provide them — things like health care, counseling, tutoring.”
As a lead stakeholder, the county will also analyze progress and provide ongoing input to the program so that if there is a need to make changes during the course of the program, the county will be at the table providing input and direction.
“It is clear that a well-educated workforce is one that we all benefit from,” says Budish. “When I speak to business leaders around the county, they tell me that they have open positions, they just can’t always fill them. So, we know there’s opportunity out there. But in order for our children to get access to those opportunities we need to pave the way for them to get good quality, affordable education.”
Of course, none of this would be possible without strong philanthropic support from both nonprofits and local businesses.
“For more than a century, education has been at the forefront of our mission as the community’s foundation,” says Ronn Richard, president and CEO of the Cleveland Foundation, whose organization and donors invested more than $100 million in Greater Cleveland in 2018.
“We see tremendous value in Say Yes as a comprehensive program that will catalyze the public and private sectors to work together in an unprecedented way to provide bright futures for generations of students and their families. The potential of a post-secondary scholarship is a key incentive, but the career services for our students from Pre-K through grade 12 will allow for a transformational shift in Greater Cleveland. This is our chance to restore Cleveland’s public school system as one of the best in the nation.”
The future of our workforce and our city depends on initiatives like Say Yes to Education, Richard adds. There is a shortage of skilled workers across all sectors in Cleveland, and, by 2020, 65 percent of jobs in Ohio will require a post-secondary education.
“Say Yes will help us create the workforce of the future for all industries by providing the emotional and social support services that will put our youth in a position to succeed while also helping our city and our businesses prosper,” Richard adds.
“We have seen firsthand the impact of the Say Yes program through our support in both Buffalo and Syracuse,” says Margot Copeland, executive vice president, corporate philanthropy and civic engagement, KeyBank and chair and CEO, KeyBank Foundation.
For example, the Say Yes program has had a tremendous impact already in Buffalo. Over the years, Say Yes has helped increase by 10 percent the number of Buffalo Public High School students attending college. It has helped increase by 15 percent the number of high school students graduating. And it offers countless support and mentoring services to guide students through their education journey. KeyBank has been a strong supporter of the Say Yes to Education approach because it can help students, and the community, reach its potential.
“Potential lies within every child,” says Copeland. “By providing the proper resources and support, we can help all children achieve their full potential. And thriving students lead to a thriving workforce and a thriving local economy.”