SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Neighbors could walk by 109 Otisco St. a dozen times without ever knowing an educational reform movement breathes out of its second-floor offices.
No sign. No banner. No boasts. Just refurbished brick exteriors and a bike rack on the corner.
A block away, the distinctive look of Section 8 housing fills the community.
This is headquarters for Say Yes in Syracuse. Just months before, executive director Rachael Gazdick and a handful of other staff members moved into this new space. They wanted to be in the communities they served instead of tucked away on a university campus.
How could they know what was going on, how could they relate to people, how could they get communities to trust them, if they weren't near them every day?
"All of this is about relationships and trust," Ms. Gazdick said.
The Syracuse initiative is an ambitious program to mitigate the impact of poverty on student success. It hopes to raise the graduation rate in Syracuse to nearly 100 percent and then pay for those students to go to college.
And it's doing so by putting the whole weight of a community behind a single movement.
"I think, as a nation, what we have to realize is that it's not one group … that is going to turn around urban school districts," Ms. Gazdick said.
The program kicked off in 2008 when Say Yes to Education, a national nonprofit foundation, partnered with the Syracuse school district, providing funding and a plan of action. Beyond the central staff, the Say Yes foundation pays for site coordinators at Syracuse schools, who organize the in-school programs, monitor data, and act as liaisons for the initiative with teachers.
Although Say Yes takes its name from the private foundation that started the initiative, it's more than just a partnership between the school district and the private foundation.
In fact, as part of a nonnegotiable pact, Say Yes required the Syracuse district to agree to stipulations that the district would work with community groups, be transparent with funding decisions and academic results, and to find an anchor university to house the Say Yes program.
They found that anchor with Syracuse University. The Say Yes staffers are technically university employees, and the university provided the new office space for free. City and county government work intimately with the other partners, sharing data and services, and kicking in funds.
And numerous community groups have been brought into the fold.
A community-advisory group that includes the mayor, county executive, school board president, and others meets four times a year to discuss Say Yes' progress.
The initiative also includes community-based organizations, which oftentimes were already providing services now included in Say Yes, though in a less centralized fashion. To run the after-school programs, Say Yes contracts with several of the organizations, including the Boys and Girls Club, the Salvation Army, community centers, and Catholic Charities.
Bringing in all these groups was a necessity; Say Yes couldn't work with just the school district on its own. But by focusing all these disparate organizations on one goal, officials said, the tendency to bicker over tough choices has diminished.
"Normally, there's a lot of finger-pointing going on," said Pat Driscoll, director of operations for the Say Yes Syracuse chapter. "[With Say Yes] there's shared responsibility by all."
Schools as hubs
The approach mirrors an initiative under way in Toledo. Officials are calling the concept "schools as community hubs."
The initiative is a major component of the Toledo school district's transformational plan. Along with a remake of all elementary and middle schools to K-8 buildings, the district hopes to build the schools into neighborhood gathering sites and service centers by pairing them with established community-based organizations.
Already, several Toledo schools have been paired with organizations. For instance, Sherman Elementary houses a Boys and Girls club; students can stay in the building for after-school programs with the club. School leaders credit increased enrollment, decreased behavior incidents, and a rise in test scores at least in part to the collaboration with the club, which moved into the school three years ago.
In May, Toledo Public Schools and the United Way of Greater Toledo announced an expansion of the general concept used at schools such as Sherman. The initiative was announced at Leverette Middle School, which will be the site of one of the hubs, along with Robinson Middle School. Each school will have a nonprofit group leading the hub.
Once nonprofit groups are chosen, the hubs could provide services such as medical and dental care and mental health and social services. The United Way is paying for the implementation and housing of the programs. "By bringing these services together," said Bill Kitson, United Way president and chief executive officer, "we are helping to knit a community together."
The big difference between Toledo and Syracuse is scale. Every school under Say Yes essentially is a community hub.
To pay for such an expansive program, choices had to be made.
Say Yes costs about $3,500 a year, per student, and that's not even counting the funds to send students to college. And while Syracuse is immersed in a massive paradigm shift in what a school district does and pays for, funding from traditional sources has begun to dry up.
So, while massive investments are made in after-school programs and student health initiatives, hundreds of teachers lost their jobs.
Yet in most cases, Say Yes and other district programs are not directly competing for the same dollars. Much of the Say Yes money in the district's budget doesn't come from the general fund, which includes teacher salaries, but from schools' Title I budgets, which provide federal funding for schools with high poverty rates.
Still, it makes garnering massive enthusiasm for an untested effort if not more difficult, at least more complicated.
One source of support has come from the district's teachers' union and its president, Kevin Ahren.
Union leadership supports most of the Say Yes initiative, Mr. Ahren said. The program is providing services to students that the district has been, historically, unable to provide, a fact that's frustrated teachers for years.
"These are critical things to our kids," he said. "[Say Yes] really understands that these things need to be addressed."
Teachers have a "healthy skepticism" about the program's prospects for success, Mr. Ahren said, largely because of the many initiatives that started to make some progress then flamed out when grant money evaporated.
And yet union leadership has backed the program. Say Yes is different, he said, because it recognizes the effect poverty has on academic achievement in a way that no other initiative has.
Union support has been vital for Say Yes. Without changes in the contract and teacher buy-in, the initiative won't work.
The extended-day piece of the initiative was easy, Mr. Ahren said, because the district long has used after-school programs. The more complicated element was summer school.
The district and the teachers' union eventually negotiated an extra 100 hours in the school year, about 25 of which is professional development, for teachers who wanted the work.
Summer pay is essentially a flat rate, though it's higher than most teachers' regular pay. Some of that is offset by additional state funding, but the rest the school district eventually will have to eat after state funding ends.
And while the union is a partner in Say Yes, Mr. Ahren acknowledges it isn't always an easy sell to his membership. The district is laying off more than 150 teachers this year.
If a vote were taken for his re-election today, Mr. Ahren equated his chances with a coin flip. But he still supports the initiative, despite the struggles.
"Now is not the time to walk away from Say Yes," he said.
Under the program, students who live in Syracuse, graduate from a Syracuse public high school, and attended 10th through 12th grades in a city school are eligible. Although most of the Say Yes initiative was rolled out by quadrants, the scholarship program was immediately offered to everyone.
Nearly 100 colleges and universities have signed on to Say Yes, including Ivy League schools Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania. For Syracuse graduates whose families make less than $75,000 a year, tuition at every one of those schools is free.
Much of the cost for the scholarships is borne by the schools. Beyond altruistic motives -- and the resulting public-relations benefit -- some colleges see the program as a chance to widen their recruitment pool.
"Private schools want the diversity," said Gene Chasin, senior vice president of Say Yes to Education
Those whose families make more than $75,000 a year don't receive the full Say Yes benefit at those schools; they receive standard financial aid, scholarships, and grants, along with an annual $5,000 Say Yes tuition grant.
Say Yes also covers the cost for students who enroll at schools in the extensive City University of New York and State University of New York systems. The majority of Say Yes scholars attend SUNY or CUNY schools.
To pay for the program, Say Yes is building a scholarship endowment, a separate pool of money from the day-to-day Syracuse school programs.
Now, the endowment is at about $9 million, Mr. Chasin said. Say Yes officials say they hope to build the endowment to $25 million for it to be sustainable.
Local governments have kicked in money, as have university boards of trustees and private businesses. The fund got a major boost this winter, when SRC, a local defense research and development contractor pledged to put up $5 million if the money was matched by others, potentially filling half of the endowments need.
Efforts to offer free education to students are not unprecedented.
The Kalamazoo Promise, instituted in 2006, is a privately funded scholarship program offered to graduates of the Kalamazoo, Mich., school district.
Beyond the lack of expansive in-school programs that Say Yes offers, however, the Kalamazoo Promise is more restrictive in how it determines eligibility for the program.
Fewer schools are involved in the program than in Syracuse's. Students must be enrolled in Kalamazoo schools for four years to qualify for any benefits, compared with three in Say Yes. To qualify for full benefits, students must be enrolled from kindergarten through graduation in Kalamazoo. Students must maintain a 2.0 GPA and must take at least 12 credits a semester.
In the Toledo area, there are institutions that also offer free education to some students.
The University of Toledo's Blue and Gold Scholar Award ensures a free education for students who qualify. The program is open to all Ohio high school graduates and those from Monroe County, Michigan. The school covers the cost of tuition and general fees, after applying government aid and other scholarships.
But like the Kalamazoo Promise, the award has limitations. Students must have a 3.0 cumulative GPA to qualify. And it's only one school, compared with the nearly 100 involved in the Say Yes program.
Progress so far
There were never supposed to be big, tangible early returns from the Say Yes program in Syracuse.
Reaching the eventual goal to increase on-time graduation rates to 95 percent and for those students to enroll in colleges or career programs, was supposed to take time. But officials say Say Yes has less evident benefits and there are already some results.
Mr. Chasin said based on experience, Say Yes officials predicted changes in five areas and when results should show.
The first effect Say Yes predicted would be an uptick in student enrollment. With the promise of free college, along with the program supports, officials expected families that had moved to the suburbs and pulled children from Syrcause schools would re-enroll in the system. Enrollment at Syracuse schools, like in many urban school districts, had been in almost perpetual decline in the past decade.
In the year following the announcement of Say Yes, enrollment declines slowed. The next year, enrollment increased, from about 19,700 students to more than 20,000.
Another effect predicted in conjunction with enrollment increases was a boost to property values; with families moving back into the city to take advantage of free college, demand for housing, and thus an increase in prices, would follow.
Again, it seems the Say Yes prediction is holding true. Home sale prices in suburban Onondaga County plateaued since the Say Yes announcement, which nearly coincided with the housing market collapse, but prices in Syracuse continued to rise, according to a study by two Syracuse University professors.
Although the initial trend appears positive, the authors of the study, Robert Bifulco and Ross Rubenstein, note there is limited housing data so far and that other factors may have affected sale prices. Other comparable New York cities also saw stronger growth than their suburban areas.
"Perhaps the most important caveat is the difficulty in attributing these trends specifically to the Say Yes initiative," the authors wrote. "The patterns we find are suggestive of a causal effect, but we cannot definitively rule out other possible explanations."
Three additional data points, according to Say Yes, should show eventual improvements. The percentage of students who attend college after graduating from high school should increase. Next, the high school graduation rate should improve. And finally, scores on state standardized tests should improve.
It's almost antithetical to modern school reforms to place test scores on the back burner and instead focus on less readily apparent goals. Most programs promise -- although few achieve -- immediate, drastic improvements on those tests.
Mr. Chasin said Say Yes considers test scores important and monitors them as a benchmark for progress, but program officials say the scores are irrelevant if they aren't paired with student and communitywide long-term success. "Test scores are a byproduct of what we put in place," Mr. Chasin said.
Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6086.