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Say Yes to Education hosted a resume workshop for city teens this summer. Photo: Stephen Sartori/Say Yes to Education
Say Yes to Education hosted a resume workshop for city teens this summer. Photo: Stephen Sartori/Say Yes to Education

Program looks to improve troubled Syracuse schools

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It's estimated that one in four young people drop out of high school each year. This represents real trouble in terms of their future happiness, health and success, and it's a challenge to the ongoing development of an innovative and productive American workforce, as many young people feel disconnected from study and work.

In Syracuse, the situation is tough: The city's population is declining, and enrollment and funding for its schools are down. The city's graduation rate is barely 50 percent.

But a new program called "Say Yes to Education", implemented a few years ago, could improve the schools and the city.

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Instead of trying to have as much pre-college life fun as possible, or maybe earning some spending cash for the upcoming semester, one of group of college-bound Syracuse teens spent the summer months getting a head start on college.

They were rewarded for their efforts during a small ceremony at Onondaga Community College (OCC), where the 29 students are currently hitting the books, with a small ceremony.

The summer head start program was funded by OCC and Say Yes to Education. Say Yes is also paying much of the bill for the students to attend the school.

Free college tuition is the icing on the cake of a program that hopes to transform the Syracuse school district.

Say Yes entered the Syracuse schools four years ago with a pledge: to overhaul the school district by boosting graduation rates and improve the district's image.

Syracuse was Say Yes' first district-wide adaptation, but the national nonprofit has been around for 25 years working in inner-city school districts on a smaller scale.

Say Yes will try its luck in Buffalo starting this year.

"Access is increased"

Since starting in Syracuse, the program has made some strides. The 9th grade dropout rate has declined 44 percent and the foundation has paid for nearly 2,000 students to go to college, it touts.

An anecdotal sign of improvement, Education Program Director Kristi Eck points out, is that more students are earning associates degrees.

"Some students who are going to two-year schools - maybe they didn’t know it was possible, or maybe they didn’t think they have the grades, or maybe they didn’t think they could afford it, which really shows that access is increased," she says.

But the graduation rate at Syracuse's high schools has remained stubborn, only ticking up a few percentage points and hovering around 53 percent.

"It will not happen in 24 hours. It will not happen in 24 months," argues regional director Pat Driscoll. "But when we start to see upticks in test scores, when we see more scholars taking advantage of the Say Yes scholarship, those are pieces of hope and you can’t just dismiss it."

Driscoll also likes to point out the increase in afterschool programs, classroom tutors and new summer camps Say Yes has provided.

Economic possibilities

Also looking towards the long term, Say Yes has the possibility of transforming Syracuse's economy in two ways.

The city hopes Say Yes will entice more families to move to the city and enroll their kids in public school. It could also create a more educated workforce.

With that second one in mind, Say Yes hosted a resume building workshop the day after its summer head start program wrapped up for its scholars.

About three dozen college-bound teens came to get one-on-one advice from area business leaders. But for some, the idea of staying in Syracuse after graduation is far flung.

"No. Just no. I want to move out of Syracuse," Natashka Nunez-Merced proclaims at the thought.

She's in her first semester now at OCC. She's a little more open to staying in central New York when the scenario of employment is raised.

"A job opportunity that will be more beneficial for me and, of course, it will pay me more - yes, I’ll stay," she says.

Say Yes has begun mentoring programs with some of the region's more high tech employers like Lockheed Martin and Syracuse Research Corp. The hope is that more students will want to work at local companies and pursue the education necessary to do it, according to Driscoll.

Potential

That other big possible economic booster is more families - enticed by the pledge of free college tuition for their kids - to move to the city and send their children to public school.

Home values in the city have increased marginally since Say Yes was announced in 2008, according to Syracuse University associate dean Ross Rubenstein, who has studied the economic impacts of college tuition programs in Georgia and now Syracuse.

Home values in Syracuse also did slightly better over the time period Rubenstein looked at than the area suburbs. But they haven't done anything drastically different than other upstate New York metro areas.

In all, Rubenstein says, it's too early to make a solid call on what Say Yes will has done for Syracuse's economy.

But Rubenstein points out that as young people become more educated and earn college degrees - the big goal of Say Yes - they also become more mobile.

"At the same time that you’re helping students to have better careers and earn more money, you’re also making it less likely that they’re going to stay where they went to high school or stay where they went to college," he says.

When talking about Say Yes, Rubenstein uses the word "potential" an awful lot. It sounds similar to the line city and Say Yes officials use: Say Yes is going to take time to change urban education, so please be patient.

This report from the Innovation Trail team is part of American Graduate: Let's Make it Happen, a multi-year public media initiative, to help communities see, and solve, the high school dropout crisis.

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