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Say Yes expands scholarships to high school equivalency program

Mubarak Ismail arrived in this country last year with limited English language skills and high hopes of getting an education.

But at 19, the Sudanese immigrant had just two years to learn the language and pass five Regents exams before he would age out of the traditional public school system. So rather than give up on school he enrolled in the Buffalo school district’s Career Collegiate Institute, where he will earn a high school equivalency degree while taking classes to prepare him for college.

And now, thanks to a new partnership with Say Yes Buffalo, Ismail’s dream of a college education is within reach. Say Yes will begin paying college tuition for students who successfully finish the program, allowing them to continue their education and putting them on a path to a productive future.

“I’m trying my best to get my high school diploma so I can go to college,” said Ismail, who wants to become an electrical engineer.

Say Yes Buffalo is the scholarship program that pays tuition for students who attend the city’s public schools to go to college. In the past, the organization required that students be continuously enrolled in one of the city’s public or charter schools for their high school years, limiting options for students who are new to the district or who fall off the academic path for a brief period.

The Career Collegiate Institute serves students between the ages of 17 to 21, preparing them for the high school equivalency exam while at the same time working in partnership with Erie Community College to get them ready for college.

There are about 160 students currently enrolled, but school leaders know that is a small number of students who would be eligible in a district where typically one in five students drops out of high school. In recent years there has been a push to recruit students who would otherwise be at risk for dropping out.

“We know in recent years that many of our students left school before earning a diploma,” said Buffalo Schools Superintendent Kriner Cash. “With the Say Yes Scholarship now available to those who return to earn their (high school equivalency) as an incentive, we hope to see the enrollment at CCI increase substantially.”

Students pack a gymnasium for a holiday party at the Career Collegiate Institute in North Buffalo on Dec. 22, 2016. (Mark Mulville/Buffalo News)

To be eligible for the scholarship, students must reside in the city and have attended a Buffalo public or charter school when they were last enrolled in a traditional school.

This latest expansion is significant because it will reach some of the city’s most at-risk young people – those most likely to drop out of high school – offering them an added incentive to finish and go on to college. Research consistently reinforces that students who do not finish high school are at a greater risk for becoming incarcerated, remaining unemployed and relying on public assistance.

Those behind the scholarship push believe a college education can change that.

“These are hardworking students who for a variety of reasons did not succeed in a traditional high school,” said Say Yes Executive Director David Rust.

Like Ismail, immigrants arrive in the area with limited English language skills and in some cases no formal education.

Ayan Dirie, 20, started at Lafayette High School when she moved here from Somalia a little over a year ago. She quickly realized it would be difficult to pass the five Regents exams required to graduate before she turned 21 – the age students can no longer attend public high school – so she enrolled in the Career Collegiate Institute.

Now, she practices her English while also learning the skills she will need to pass the high school equivalency test.

Other students find it difficult to get the attention they need in a traditional high school, but thrive in the institute’s smaller setting.

“I wasn’t getting the help that I needed because there were so many students,” said Essence Bailey, 17, who previously attended the Charter School for Applied Technologies. “I was behind in school and decided to try something different.”

And in a district where many students enter high school already behind in the skills they need to be successful, some lose hope they will finish. The collegiate program gives them a second chance to reboot their education.

“We take anyone who comes through our door,” said Lester B. Leopold, the district’s director of adult and continuing education.

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