Aarick Knighton ’16 grew up in the Valley neighborhood on Syracuse’s South Side, where he attended public schools that often had difficulty meeting the needs of students held back by life circumstances. “Many of my high school classmates struggled not because they were bad students, but because they had bigger issues to deal with outside the classroom,” Knighton recalls. Syracuse University sought to address some of those challenges by forming a communitywide partnership that would become the first of its kind in the country. It grew from a seed planted decades earlier by a man named George Weiss. He called it “Say Yes to Education.”
In 1987, Weiss—a successful businessman—promised 112 sixth graders from an underserved Philadelphia neighborhood that if they graduated from high school, he would pay for their college education. Weiss’ organization, Say Yes to Education , helped cohorts of low-income students graduate from high school in places where Weiss had a personal connection—Philadelphia, Cambridge and Harlem. The results were encouraging—cohort students graduated both high school and college at a higher rate than their socioeconomic peers—so the Say Yes to Education board started looking for a community where it could launch the organization’s first citywide chapter. It had to be a community with all the right ingredients for a big, bold impact.
In Weiss’ eyes, the City of Syracuse fit the bill.
Syracuse University leadership embraced the project. Providing access to a diverse community of students is a core value of the University’s mission, and the University believed the city’s leaders were ready for an innovative approach that would address issues around poverty, dropout rates and educational deficits among disadvantaged children. Syracuse University became a contributing partner in that effort.
Since the Syracuse program began in 2008, Say Yes to Education has awarded more than $10 million in scholarships and grants for local students pursuing college and has leveraged over $120 million in state, federal and institutional aid to support local students. Say Yes scholars enrolled at Syracuse University have received an average of $4.6 million per year from the University.
Today, any Syracuse City School District (SCSD) student who is accepted to Syracuse University is guaranteed four years of tuition-free education, no matter their family income. Eligible students do not gain special consideration for admission, but the incentive to stay on track academically is strong: about 150 Say Yes scholars are currently attending Syracuse University.
A Powerful Community Partnership
“What Syracuse University, the Syracuse City School District and the community—including the Say Yes Partners—have done over the past 10 years has been nothing short of remarkable,” says Ahmeed Turner, executive director of the Syracuse chapter of Say Yes to Education. “Each and every student has a pathway to college, and they will get the support they need along the pathway to be successful.”
Say Yes is a “last dollar” scholarship through the organization’s endowment, which is housed at the Central New York Community Foundation. Syracuse University merit awards and state grants (Tuition Assistance Program—TAP Grants in New York State) are applied to the student’s tuition, and the balance of tuition is supported by the University.
Pich Chet is a senior at SCSD’s Institute of Technology at Central (ITC) who is projected to be the valedictorian of her class when she graduates this spring. She recently received an early decision acceptance to the dual degree program in broadcast and digital journalism and business management at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications and Martin J. Whitman School of Management . “When I was admitted, I was overjoyed,” says Chet, who was raised in Cambodia and moved to Syracuse at age 13.
“Education has always been my number one priority,” she says. “I believe that no amount of money will ever repay my mother for her effort to bring me here, because her dream was always that her children would receive a good education. Attending Syracuse University tuition-free allows me to acquire higher education without student debt and financial burden on my parents. It also provides reassurance for my two siblings that if they work hard during their years in SCSD, there is an opportunity for them to attend college at no cost. I have made it official that I will attend Syracuse University in the fall of 2020, and I take pride in being a Syracuse student.”
A Network of Opportunity
The opportunities go beyond Syracuse University, thanks to a national compact with 120 other colleges. Students who meet the Say Yes to Education criteria also receive a tuition guarantee when they attend any State University of New York (SUNY) or City University of New York (CUNY) school, and there are 120 private partner colleges that guarantee tuition—covered by the college itself—for eligible students. The student’s family income must be below $75,000 to receive the tuition guarantee at most partner colleges, and if the family income exceeds that amount, they may receive a Choice grant of up to $5,000 toward tuition from the local endowment.
Syracuse City School District’s Say Yes initiative started with enrichment programming during an extended school day. Two Say Yes employees were assigned to each school in one of the city’s quadrants to help in any way necessary to improve student achievement. The extra school hours allowed time to introduce students to subjects like robotics, fencing and chess. “These types of supports and learning opportunities enrich a student’s life and give them a global perspective,” Turner says.
This has evolved into the placement of family support specialists—two in each school in SCSD. They conduct research while offering students and families mental health services and legal clinics to address challenges, like social-emotional issues, risky behaviors and landlord and custody disputes. Students in need of intervention are identified through a tiered system that serves all students, flagging those who are not thriving or are exhibiting risky behaviors.
Influential Role Models
“When you know better, you do better,” says Cordell Grant, who graduated from Corcoran High School in 2009 and attended SUNY Cortland on a Say Yes scholarship. Grant recently graduated from the University of Baltimore School of Law and works for the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office. “My grades were always good, and I always had a plan to achieve my goals, but Say Yes helped me get to the next level,” says Grant. He credits his parents with supporting him in every way and says they kept him focused as he dealt with the pressures of high school in the inner city. “Their perseverance and humility inspired me, and I was able to navigate successfully. They pushed me to push myself and not conform to the social stigma society attaches to young black men. They were there to guide me.”
Grant served on the Say Yes to Education leadership advisory board, where he was an eloquent advocate for disadvantaged youth and communities. “I believe it is important to lend your voice purposefully, especially when your goal is to inspire and motivate change,” he says. “Say Yes was a positive program for the Syracuse community and a formidable opponent against systemic oppression and marginalization through education.” His career goals focus on equality and criminal and legislative policy change for disenfranchised minorities. “My career path has always been to represent the unrepresented,” he says.
As the child of a teacher and a journalist, Syracuse University student Liam Kirst did not have to navigate many of the roadblocks his peers faced in the city schools. “For some, Say Yes offered a much-needed way out. For me, it offered a profound reason to stay,” Kirst says. “It was an opportunity to attend a shining university on a hill, tuition free, in a city that had already taught me so much. The way I see the world today can be traced back to my time in a diverse high school and the opportunities available to me through Say Yes. It has instilled in me a sense of great pride about our city.”
Kirst recently returned to his studies at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs after taking a hiatus to work with a variety of community organizations. “My path has been paved by experiences that simply would not have been possible without the assistance of Say Yes to Education,” Kirst says. “I am forever grateful.”
A Transformative Ripple Effect
Executive Director Turner is convinced that Say Yes to Education elevates the Central New York community’s profile in a profound way due to the societal impact of an educated citizenry. “I wholeheartedly believe that this will result in positive, contributing members in our great community,” he says. “The level of one’s education is the most effective indicator for quality of life. Evidence and research support that people who are educated are more likely to vote, own property, donate, marry, be civically informed and be happy with life in general. As a community, we value our young people and know they have the talent to push the region forward.”
“Say Yes was life-changing for me,” says Knighton, who earned a bachelor’s degree in information management and technology from the School of Information Studies and now works in Syracuse University’s Division of Marketing and Communications. “It provided a pathway to a future I didn’t know existed. In high school, I was motivated to stay on track academically and socially because I knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Knighton saw a proud community of Say Yes scholars develop on campus. “Whenever I met a fellow Say Yes student, there was an unspoken acknowledgment,” he says. “I think Say Yes students understand the sacrifices you have to make to be successful. It’s like a silent, ‘Hey, I see you. Congratulations on making it this far—now let’s keep pushing.’”