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Editorial: Say Yes has made strides to reinvigorate public education

When Say Yes to Education came to Buffalo several years ago, city school kids were failing to graduate and those who did make it through seldom matriculated into higher education. Maybe students and families lost hope. It would be easy to do; Buffalo has high poverty rates and too many unemployed and underemployed adults.

Say Yes, which landed in the city six years ago, held the promise of more. Make it through high school, and the nonprofit would pay that last dollar for college after assistance. But now that the high school Class of 2013 – the first in Buffalo to benefit from Say Yes – has been studied, it is clear that much work remains.

But no one should be discouraged.

Here is the situation more than four years after the nonprofit arrived: More than a quarter of those who enrolled in college that first year earned either a bachelor’s or an associate degree, which is more than previous classes. The same percentage is still pursuing a college degree.

Still, nearly half had dropped out. The result, shown through new data, elicited an insightful comment from David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo: “In between, there’s a whole lot of work to do.”

Indeed.

It isn’t surprising that students growing up among poverty face a host of obstacles to completing college, of which money is just one. With combined family income below $25,000, these are not traditional suburban college students with Mom and Dad footing much of the bill. And there is pressure that goes beyond college, from stresses engulfing poor neighborhoods. Say Yes and its partners have reached out.

The nonprofit has spent the past few years, along with Buffalo Public Schools, rebuilding the infrastructure involving wraparound supports, removing as barriers everything from food, clothing and shelter and providing intensive social service case work and mental health clinics, while adding enriching opportunities such as after-school programs. All service areas are available in every public school building, backed by community schools and parent centers and close partnerships with the district.

Financial support for the program helps.

The nonprofit organization and community are hugely grateful for two big donations: $10 million from the state and $25 million from a generous private donor. The funds will go toward an endowment to fund college tuition in Buffalo for generations. The funding keeps that last dollar available. But there is something money cannot buy and that starts at home. It also starts with rigor in the classroom taught by educators who themselves have undergone evaluation.

Say Yes has been a game-changer in the push to reinvigorate Buffalo’s public schools. Thanks to Say Yes, 67 percent of Buffalo’s 2017 graduates went to college, 10 percentage points more than before its arrival. Say Yes has partnered with more than 100 private colleges and universities. It has paid out more than $10 million in tuition.

And there should be more good news to come as children starting kindergarten today and tomorrow are in a much different environment in terms of assets and buildings than those who took advantage of the scholarship in 2013. But the community must continue to do more, starting with continued support to the endowment so the strategy is in place for the long term. Officials have done a good job but must keep working in partnership – the city, school district, county and Say Yes.

Keeping up the momentum will not be easy but it will be well worth the effort.

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