Say Yes Cleveland Launches With Promise To Pay College Tuition

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Thousands of high school graduates in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District could receive scholarships for college or vocational training thanks to a multi-million dollar program announced Friday.

Say Yes Cleveland is the newest chapter of a New York-based nonprofit called Say Yes to Education. And its stated mission is ambitious: “to increase education levels of Cleveland residents; boost and retain population in the city of Cleveland; improve college access for middle- and low-income families in Cleveland; and spur economic growth and expansion in the region.”

After a year of fundraising from local foundations, local corporations, and private donors, Say Yes Cleveland is launching with almost $90 million for a scholarship fund, with the hopes of eventually reaching $125 million, an amount the organization says would fund scholarships for students in the CMSD school district, and certain partnering charter schools, for the next 25 years. 

Students and community members cheer the announcement at the John Marshall campus that Cleveland will be the fourth Say Yes to Education community [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

Students and community members cheer the announcement at the John Marshall campus that Cleveland will be the fourth Say Yes to Education community [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

Supporters of Say Yes say it could be transformative for generations of public school students, not only because it will expand access to postsecondary education, but also because a critical component of the program involves surrounding each student with a suite of support services. 

“Lots of promise programs have the promise of going to college, but don’t have the tools to help you achieve that goal,” said Eric Gordon, CEO of CMSD. “But Say Yes actually has the companion piece with wraparound services.”

Such support services will include physical and mental health services, tutoring, after school and summer program, and even legal clinics.

Eric Gordon, CEO of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, speaking about the Say Yes Cleveland program on Ideas. [ideastream]

According to the Say Yes framework, these services would be provided by local community organizations and be aided by greater information-sharing between those providers and schools. According to Gordon, data on students--such as whether they have learning difficulties or health issues--will be centralized in a database called the Say Yes Post-Secondary Planning System, with the goal of identifying obstacles to a student’s education and connecting them with resources that can help. 

The John Marshall High School drumline performs at the Friday Say Yes Cleveland announcement [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

The John Marshall High School drumline performs at the Friday Say Yes Cleveland announcement [Lisa Ryan / ideastream]

The Scholarship Program

The Say Yes Cleveland Scholarship is described as a “gap-closing” or “final dollar” scholarship. It will pay the full- or partial-tuition, depending on the student’s family’s income, and minus the amount of other grants received by the student. 

The Say Yes scholarship can go toward attending an Ohio public four-year university, two-year college, or a trade or certificate program that is eligible for a federal Pell Grant. 

However, only students who meet certain criteria will qualify. According to Say Yes Cleveland, the scholarships will be available for students who have “continuously” lived in Cleveland and who have graduated from a CMSD school or partnering charter high school. Additionally, that student must be enrolled since the beginning of ninth grade. (Students from Bratenahl, Linndale, Newburgh Heights, and parts of Brook Park and Garfield Heights who are assigned to a CMSD school are also eligible.)

When Will The Program Begin?

The scholarship program will start with the high school graduating class of 2019. However, the support services for students will roll out gradually, beginning with 15 percent of schools in 2019-20, 25 percent in 2020-21, 30 percent more in 2021-22, and the remaining 30 percent of schools in 2022-23. 

The Say Yes Approach Has Yielded Mixed Results

Founded in 1987, Say Yes has been in existence for over three decades. For most of that time, it provided scholarship and support services to cohorts of 50 to 300 children in chapters in Philadelphia, Cambridge, MA, Harford, CT, and Harlem in New York City. Then, in 2008, it began its first community-wide chapter in Syracuse, New York. That was followed by chapters in Buffalo (2012) and Guilford County, North Carolina (2015).

While Say Yes to Education, the national nonprofit, will serve as consultants to Say Yes Cleveland, the program’s success will hinge on how local schools, community providers, and local leaders collaborate. 

“There is no Say Yes ‘model,’” wrote the authors of a 2018 Brookings Institution report on the Say Yes Program. Rather there is a Say Yes “approach” or “philosophy.” That report looked at the track record of Say Yes communities in Buffalo, Syracuse, and Guilford County.

“Each of the three Say Yes sites, the structure, evolution, and scope vary significantly.” Thus, the report says, it is difficult to extrapolate from Say Yes’s previous three community-wide experiments to predict the success of the Cleveland program. 

In Buffalo, researchers found that the promise of Say Yes scholarships likely contributed to an increase in enrollment in Buffalo Public Schools, an increase in college-going for white students, and increased high school graduation rates among black students. However, the authors added, “The overall goal of Say Yes, of course, is to increase postsecondary completion rates: for that evidence, we will need to wait for the data.” 

Also, despite the emphasis on data sharing, “the gap between rhetoric and reality on the data front has become apparent” in all three communities, the report said. “As Say Yes has learned, it is much easier to talk about data than it is to collect, share, analyze, and produce it.”

Moreover, it found that the Guilford County chapter had trouble estimating how much the scholarships would cost, resulting in $5 million overspent in its first year. 

As the fourth community-wide chapter of Say Yes, Cleveland will benefit from the lessons learned in previous iterations, says Gene Chasin, Chief Operating Officer of Say Yes to Education. 

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