Imagine a public school district and its community that supports children beginning in preschool, follows them through high school to postsecondary education and into a job that can adequately sustain individuals and their families. From day one the goal is the same — a postsecondary education as a path away from poverty and low self-esteem.
Say Yes to Education is a national, nonprofit organization that selectively partners with communities to create a sustainable framework to make that real and make college accessible and affordable. In 2017, Say Yes selected Cleveland to begin a pre-launch phase in consideration of becoming its next chapter. Six convening partners in Cleveland helped form a more broadly inclusive local planning committee to oversee the pre-launch work, according to Lee Friedman, CEO of College Now Greater Cleveland, one of the six partners. Other conveners include: City of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Cleveland Metropolitan School District, Cleveland Foundation and United Way of Greater Cleveland.
“The expectation is that we will be a Say Yes chapter city. But you don’t get named one until you are really ready to launch it,” says Friedman. “We feel it is a wonderful opportunity for students to have all they need to stay on an academic track. And also for them to have aspirations for a postsecondary education and have [scholarship] money sitting there for them after high school. This way, they can focus on what children and families should focus on — being happy and productive and having long-term goals.”
If implemented, the Say Yes initiative will build on existing academic, health and social services and scholarship programs, including College Now and others.
“We have been getting results. The graduation rate increased 20 percent in the past six years,” says Helen Williams, program director for education for the Cleveland Foundation. “But college matriculation rates are significantly lower. Only 22 percent of Clevelanders have a two-year associate degree or a four-year degree.”
“If a student doesn’t have enough money to go to school and finds a job at $10 an hour, that sounds great when you are 18. But it’s not over the poverty level,” says Friedman. “If you want Cleveland Clinic and big manufacturers to grow here, they need people with academic training. Ohio is 45th in affordability for public universities and 33rd in educational attainment.”
Say Yes was founded in 1987 by money manager George Weiss, who began giving back by providing promised scholarships and other assistance to small groups of students at risk. But he created the more comprehensive Say Yes model to help more students.
Say Yes provides expert support and $15 million in seed capital over six years to each chapter community. The funding is earmarked to support the community as it develops a scalable and sustainable structure for support services that include tutoring, medical care, summer enrichment, counseling and more — all intended to eliminate hurdles to educational success.
“This is a lot of work. And people look for a silver bullet to solve problems. And when there aren’t any, they get skeptical. And they should,” says Williams. “But Say Yes is not a silver bullet. What we are saying is if you succeed in high school and get into college, we’ll help you pay for it. It’s about changing aspirations. It’s hard to do. But the payoff will be so incredible.”