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Say Yes is leading a vital improvement in the number of college-bound students

Samuel L. Radford III hit the nail on the head last week in assessing the influence of Say Yes to Education in Buffalo schools. “Is it working?” the president of the District Parent Coordinating Council asked rhetorically. “That’s an understatement.”

The evidence – still gathering, but nonetheless clear – shows the nonprofit organization to be everything its supporters hoped for when it came to Western New York more than four years ago: a game-changer.

The organization, founded almost 30 years ago in Philadelphia, aims to increase the number of students attending college, and in about as direct a way as imaginable: It pays tuition for students. If they graduate, they can go to college. Say Yes eliminates – obliterates – the impenetrable obstacle of cost.

It’s a carrot that is meant to inspire students from financially struggling families to reach for it. The program pays the portion of tuition that state, federal and institutional aid doesn’t. Knowing they can attend a university in New York gives students who might never have given a thought to college, let alone graduating high school, a reason to stay in school and do the work.

And they are doing it.

Beginning with the Class of 2013, 2,947 Buffalo students have received tuition money from Say Yes, with 57 percent of Say Yes students enrolling in four-year colleges. That’s a remarkable performance. The improvement shows up across the district:

• At Bennett High School, 57 percent of graduates have enrolled in college with the help of Say Yes, compared with 51 percent in the three years before the program was launched in Buffalo.

• At Burgard High School, 51 percent enrolled after Say Yes, compared with 41 percent before.

• The improvement shows up even at a high-performing school like City Honors. It sent 91 percent of graduates to college compared with 87 percent before Say Yes arrived.

The magic here isn’t simply in providing money, as critical as that is, but in raising students’ expectations – of their future prospects, of their ability to succeed, of themselves in general. Many of these students come from homes that haven’t valued education.

Say Yes is breaking that generational cycle of hopelessness. What is more, if those students – and the rest of Buffalo – play their cards right, it could lead to future generations of students who view a college education not only as plausible, but as necessary and expected.

That will pay dividends for decades to come, producing the educated workforce required by Buffalo’s new high-tech economy, lowering the city’s poverty level, increasing tax revenues and, as important as anything, creating the belief among young families that they can move into Buffalo knowing their children will be well educated. That’s crucial for the city’s long-term health.

Plainly, a lot of work remains to be done before that happens. The improvement in the percentage of students enrolling in college is a great start, but 67 percent – up from 58 percent before Say Yes – provides no cause for a victory dance. The work is only beginning.

But it has at least begun, and in an exciting and hopeful way. Fortunately for Buffalo, Say Yes appears to be here for the long haul, despite what is often a wretched political environment. In that regard, its efforts here are raising expectations all around.