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Syracuse rallies behind ambitious schools initiative

City with struggles like Toledo's sets sights higher

  • Say-Yes-Syracuse-07-24-2011

    Syracuse’s Say Yes initiative was the first to include an entire school system.

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  • VanDuyn-elementary-school-class-07-24-2011

    Teacher Christine Hopkins leads a kindergarten class at VanDuyn Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y. Say Yes officials say that students need to be in the program from kindergarten to graduation to get the full impact.

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Teacher Christine Hopkins leads a kindergarten class at VanDuyn Elementary School in Syracuse, N.Y. Say Yes officials say that students need to be in the program from kindergarten to graduation to get the full impact.

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One in an ongoing series

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- They weren't there to pray. Not out loud, at least.

Hundreds of young people, dressed in orange, lined the pews of the Hendricks Chapel. Their shirts all proclaimed the day's sermon, the summer's motto: Say Yes.

Most college students had eyes on summer vacations, or extra classes for the more driven. For these students, summer would mean something else. They were joining a movement.

The students were there to kick-start a summer program for the Syracuse city school system, part of an ambitious initiative aimed at removing the barriers of poverty for Syracuse's students.

In between African drum and ballet performances by the orange-clad audience's future wards, Rachael Gazdick stepped on stage and to the lectern. The executive director of the initiative laid at their feet high expectations.

Related: Does Toledo outperform Syracuse? It depends

"Every child matters," Ms. Gazdick said, "and every child is a genius."

But in many cases in Syracuse, those children won't reach that potential. Odds are, they'll drop out of school. Stephanie Miner, mayor of Syracuse, told the students how proud she was that they were part of a movement to try to bring change.

"If there is any challenge that we have, it is in education," the mayor said. "And too many people are left behind."

It's hard to argue against Ms. Miner.

Most students in Syracuse are overwhelmingly poor. Enrollment in public schools for years was in continual decline. Not surprisingly, the system's performance is subpar.

In 2008, only half the students who had enrolled as freshmen four years earlier graduated. Barely half of high school students scored proficient on state reading tests. Math scores were worse.

Reforms had been tried with little effect. Some were too small. Some ran out of money. Some just were bad. Now, the district is in the midst of a new reform, something much bigger, and more ambitious, than anything else tried.

The struggles of Syracuse's public schools are in many ways similar to those in Toledo. It's how they are dealing with them that's different. Toledo is in the midst of its own school-reform plan, reconfiguring schools, beefing up academics in underperforming schools, and partnering with community organizations to make schools neighborhood centers. And while some of Toledo's efforts are similar to those being tried in Syracuse, the Say Yes movement is drastically more ambitious.

Lofty goals

The school district partnered in 2008 with a national nonprofit group called Say Yes to Education, reorganizing programs, extending the school year and day, wrapping social and health programs into school buildings, and raising expectations for student achievement.

Free legal and health clinics were added to schools. Additional social and mental health workers were hired. New data tracking systems were built, alerting staff to red flags in students' school and home lives.

And at the end of all those services is the carrot on the stick. The headline-grabbing element of the initiative is a promise of free -- or nearly free -- college education for every student who graduates from Syracuse's public schools.

The goals are lofty.

In less than three years, Say Yes hopes to boost Syracuse's graduation rate to 75 percent. Ultimately, it wants 95 percent of students to graduate and then have those students succeed in college.

High stakes


Syracuse’s Say Yes initiative was the first to include an entire school system.

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Leaders say this won't just save Syracuse. It could be the answer to struggling urban school systems everywhere.

"I believe this is a model for the rest of the country," said Pat Driscoll, director of operations for the Say Yes Syracuse chapter.

If nothing else, Say Yes has succeeded in one area most school reforms fail: mass buy-in. The initiative is a cooperative among the school district, the teachers' union, the Say Yes foundation, Syracuse University, city and county governments, private businesses, and local community-based organizations.

Leaders said they needed the partnerships. The stakes are so high.

"Say Yes is the first initiative that says, 'We are going to do something about it,' " said Daniel Lowengard, recently retired Syracuse superintendent.

The program is expensive. Say Yes estimates that it costs annually about $3,500 per student, and that's not counting the college scholarships. Right now, the district covers only about half of the $30 million to run the program but must pay for it on its own by the end of the 2013-2014 school year.

And Say Yes is unique not just in its goals but also in the trust it asks. For students to get the full "Say Yes effect," they'll have to go through the program from kindergarten through graduation. That means that Syracuse won't see the full impact of the initiative -- and won't know whether it was successful -- for a decade.

This year is pivotal for the Say Yes program. In the fall, Say Yes will be fully implemented in the district. Demands for results are likely to grow. And financial pressures on a strained school budget will not make anything easier.

Built-in services

It's the school nurse's office on steroids.

Open the doors of Dr. King Elementary School's health clinic, and students discover an array of services they'd normally have to go to a doctor's office to find.

Nebulizers, used by students earlier that day, lined a table in the clinic. If a student has asthma, he or she can go to the clinic to get treatment. Down the hall, a dentist chair awaits children whose teeth haven't been checked in years. In-house doctors and nurse practitioners can prescribe and distribute students' medication.

"I know for a fact that kids can come to school and get well," Patricia Floyd-Echols, principal of the school, said.

Dr. King, after receiving a community school grant more than a decade ago, established built-in services for both students and neighbors. It has a health and dental clinic and a wing dedicated to adult education and classes in English as a second language.

That's not to say that Say Yes hasn't added anything at Dr. King. The district hired more social workers, lowering the student-to-social-worker ratio to 200 to 1 from 450 to 1. Even with the added staff, case- loads are backlogged.

"How I ever did it with one, I don't know," Ms. Floyd-Echols said. "They are so busy."

It's hard to pinpoint the effect the community programs have on academic performance, but Ms. Floyd-Echols said the school's approach is keeping students in the building.

Attendance is up, she said. Student mobility rates dropped from about 32 percent a year to about 15 percent since the community programs opened. And teachers can spend less time worrying about the health of their students and more time teaching.

"The teacher is in the classroom," Ms. Floyd-Echols said, "where [the students] learn."

Reaching out

About Say Yes to Education

Say Yes to Education is a nonprofit foundation whose goal is to eliminate the impediments poverty has caused for students’ academic success.

The foundation was started in 1987 by George Weiss, a successful money manager, when he promised more than 100 students at a Philadelphia school that he would pay for their college education if they graduated from high school. Over time, the program has expanded. Say Yes added chapters in Hartford, Conn., and Cambridge Mass., and later a
program in Philadelphia, progressively lowering the
starting grade level for the program. In 2004, the foundation formed a chapter in Harlem in New York City. This time, the program was offered in five  schools and included nearly 400 students, nearly double the size of all other chapters combined.

As the foundation grew, it also added new layers at each chapter, moving beyond just free postsecondary education, as the foundation learned that financial incentives were not enough.

Some measurable results have been achieved.
According to Say Yes, 87 percent of Cambridge
students in the chapter graduated from high school
or received a GED. Nearly 80 percent of Hartford students graduated.

With those successes, Say Yes staff made plans
to take its program to scale. They wanted to see
if the initiative could work across an entire city. After
a lengthy review, Say Yes chose Syracuse.

Much of the Say Yes program in Syracuse is built around the same premises of the Dr. King Elementary model. For instance, families in the district who have legal issues can turn to six legal clinics, staffed by 100 lawyers working free of charge. And each school should have a free mental health clinic within a year.

Rates of mental health and behavior disorders are high in many Syracuse schools, as they are in most urban areas. The district and county had long wanted to put mental health clinicians in schools, hoping that easy access would mean more students would get treated.

The service, officials hoped, would bring academic improvements and eventually cut government expenses, as children treated early for disorders would be less likely to end up in costly special education or discipline programs, said Ann Rooney, Onondaga County deputy executive for human services.

"If we can prevent them from getting on those rolls," she said, "it will pay dividends."

But the schools couldn't afford to pay for doctors, and private providers said it wasn't cost-effective to dedicate employees at school sites. Providers were reimbursed only $75 an hour in New York.

Instead of looking for more money, Say Yes partners sought to rearrange how already available money was spent. They worked with the state to enhance Medicaid reimbursement rates to $125 an hour for mental health services.

By 2012, every school in Syracuse will have its own mental health clinic, at no cost to the district. The schools provide the space, and the health providers bring the doctors.

"We don't have to give the service," Mr. Lowengard said. "But we have to make sure they get the service."

Health insurance

Still, having clinicians in a school won't mean much if children can't afford the service. That means medical insurance.

After a state study estimated that more than 7,000 children in Onondaga County were uninsured, officials initiated a drive to enroll as many Syracuse students as possible in insurance programs. Teachers and administrators at every school called parents and knocked on doors.

They quickly learned the study's figure probably was inflated, but the effort resulted in the addition of more than 300 students to insurance rolls. Now, officials estimate about 94 percent of district students are covered by medical insurance.

But the problem, they found, isn't getting students signed up for insurance. It's keeping them enrolled.

To stay on Medicaid, recipients must re-enroll every year. Families who live in intense poverty in urban areas tend to be highly mobile. Because federal agencies' mail is not forwarded in some cases, re-enrollment notices to those families frequently are sent to long-vacated homes.

That means many urban families unknowingly allow their Medicaid to lapse. So, Syracuse developed a new data-sharing program to track re-enrollment dates.

The county human services department sends Say Yes site coordinators data on students that show when children were enrolled in Medicaid. The system flags a family if its members are at risk of losing their insurance. Then, coordinators contact families, reminding them to re-enroll in Medicaid. The system can work with other social programs, such as food stamps or energy assistance programs.

Shifting priorities

A key realization partners in Say Yes reached is that to sustain a program this massive, a district cannot rely solely on outside grant funding. Many of the initiatives are paid through reallocations of already available dollars, either within or outside the district.

But not all of the Say Yes elements are cost neutral for the district. Hard choices had to be made.

Part of the Say Yes initiative includes continuous financial and program research into the Syracuse school system by the American Institutes for Research. The company is providing $7.5 million in free research for the system, said Gene Chasin, Say Yes executive vice president. It includes yearly program reviews and snapshots of school performance.

Say Yes also contracted with nonprofit research firm Education Resource Strategies to analyze the district's yearly expenses. Among the study's findings is that Syracuse spends significantly more on its special education program than other comparative districts did.

Syracuse's special education inclusion program is extensive, with even severely handicapped students staying in the district. Only a handful of students are pulled out of regular classrooms; the school system adheres to the mainstreaming concept to the extreme, Mr. Lowengard said.

That leads to high costs, as handicapped students require personalized care within classrooms, generally provided by paraprofessionals. The 20,000-student district had about 900 such employees.

It's not that the special education program was a bad thing. But the district had to decide if it was efficient, and if it was affordable alongside Say Yes. The district cut about 170 paraprofessionals, Mr. Lowengard said. "We knew it had to be done," he said.

'A desire for change'

Tucked into the corner of a classroom in Syracuse University's Hall of Languages, Shawon Rivers prepared for a different kind of summer school. His orange Say Yes shirt was gone, but his training continued.

Mr. Rivers was among about 300 college students spread through the university's campus, training to become Say Yes summer school counselors. He planned to run sports and physical education enrichment programs during afternoon sessions, after students finished their academic classes.

The college students, now broken into groups based on the city schools they were assigned to, learned about the historical inequalities in American education. For many of these students, this would be the first time in low-income, urban environments. The session was meant as background to reduce the shock some might experience when they enter the schools and meet their students.

It was a moment of team building and of self discovery. The college students, such as David Downing, a graduate of the Syracuse district, wrote poems about their own histories, about where they came from.

"I am from a desire for change," he read, "a thirst for legacy."

That thirst is what Say Yes hopes to foster in students.

Like many of the counselors in training, Mr. Downing and Mr. Rivers are Syracuse school products. They both said they wanted to come back during their summers and be a part of Say Yes.

So far, much of Syracuse's performance gains have been in places other than graduation rates and college enrollment. Only about 50 percent of students are graduating, and only about half of those are going to college. Officials say they never envisioned or promised early graduation rate returns; the full Say Yes impact will take years before it's apparent.

But at least some students say Say Yes has changed their educational paths. Jakia Durham, a Syracuse school graduate, once had limited ambitions for education after high school.

Now at a local community college, Ms. Durham will head to Syracuse University in the fall. Before she heard of Say Yes, she may have gone to a vocational school. Now, her sights are set higher.

"I actually didn't think I could afford college before they told me about the program," she said.

Mr. Downing, a student at upstate New York's Colgate University, said that in some ways Syracuse has undergone a cultural shift. People respect him for going to college. Kids in his neighborhood tell him they wish there was a Say Yes program when they were in high school.

"It's hard not to go to college in Syracuse," Mr. Downing said. "It's not intelligent to say no to college now."

Looking ahead

Before college students take over the day for enrichment programs, teachers such as Jamie Higgins and Karen Dotson spend mornings on academics.

For now, the extended year is voluntary, but the ultimate goal of Say Yes is to make the school day and year longer for all students.

The two, who teach at VanDuyn Elementary School, said they want an extended school year; teachers might not like the extra work, but the students need it. Ms. Dotson and Ms. Higgins work summer classes, and they see the benefit. "When they have two months of doing what they want to do," Ms. Dotson said, "they lose months of learning."

Their fear, the fear that every teacher has when a new initiative is begun, is that the program will end when things get tough.

"How long is it going to last?" Ms. Dotson asked.

Contact Nolan Rosenkrans at: or 419-724-6086.

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