Thursday, May 24, 2018
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Say Yes has voice in operations

Foundation made funds conditional on role in Syracuse district

When Say Yes to Education agreed to partner with the Syracuse school district, it didn’t just give money and support.

The foundation insisted the district sign a nonnegotiable agreement detailing several steps the district must take. The school system and community partners had to collaborate. The initiative’s progress had to be transparent.

Without those guarantees, Say Yes wouldn’t provide the funds.

“[Just giving] more money doesn’t work,” said Gene Chasin, Say Yes senior vice president.

Say Yes also become deeply involved in the school system. The foundation hired a team to run operations in Syracuse.

Each school has a Say Yes site coordinator, a go-between with the school and the foundation. Research firms hired by Say Yes analyze school data and district finances, and Say Yes insisted their findings be public.

Say Yes officials even led the search team that recently selected a new superintendent for the Syracuse district.

In those ways, the collaboration is similar to a school initiative in Chattanooga, Tenn.

A decade ago, two private foundations put up $7.5 million to kick-start the Benwood Initiative, a reform program that focused on improving the quality of instruction offered at Chattanooga’s worst schools.

The foundations stayed hands-on. One of the foundations even hired a director to monitor school progress and organize professional development.

The director worked intimately with the school district, running training programs, visiting schools, analyzing data.

That level of involvement, and outside accountability, made some school leaders uncomfortable.

But it was also vital for the initiative’s success, according to those involved in the reforms.

What was learned in both cities is that extra money is important, but so is having an outside voice independent of much of the politics ingrained in public education.

“We have a role as an honest broker,” Mr. Chasin said, “a marriage counselor.”

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