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Say Yes gets help from Bill and Melinda Gates to help students stay in college

Say Yes, the non-profit that guarantees public school kids from Buffalo free college tuition, has continued to grow the number of students heading off to college by eliminating one of the biggest barriers: cost.

But once students get into college, the organization quickly realized there is another problem: the number of students dropping out.

Now, help is on the way.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the largest charitable organizations in the world, has awarded Say Yes Buffalo a total of $2.9 million for the next two years, not for scholarships, but to make sure those who do enter college make it through.

The Gates grant will fund several new initiatives — like adding counselors and mental-health clinics on campuses drawing the most Say Yes students — to boost the numbers persisting in college from one year to the next.

It’s a big key to whether Say Yes is ultimately successful.

“As we’ve done this, we’ve identified some unmet needs, which is supporting students when they get on campus,” said David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo. “They may have a challenge with food, with transportation, needing more math or English tutoring, so we’re adding new services to the campuses to help boost persistence.”

An announcement was scheduled for Thursday with leaders from the Buffalo Public Schools and five area colleges that admit the largest number of students receiving Say Yes assistance. They are SUNY Buffalo State, Medaille, Villa Maria and Erie Community colleges, as well as the University at Buffalo.

Students cheer at the original announcement of the Say Yes program at a rally at Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts in 2011. (Robert Kirkham/News file photo)

“The scholarship piece, of course, is a very important part, but that only opens the door,” said Katherine Conway-Turner, president at Buffalo State. “So once you open the door, how do you walk through the door and stay on the path?”

In fact, Conway-Turner said, this is part of a much larger, deeper conversation in higher education as colleges around the United States enroll a more diverse population of students, many of whom may not have been able to consider college as an option as recently as a decade ago.

“What the playbook looked like 10 years ago and what it looks like now is very different,” she said.

Say Yes pays for tuition at New York’s colleges and universities, but only what’s not covered by state, federal and institutional aid designated toward tuition.

Students of Buffalo public and charter schools are eligible for up to a year after graduation and guaranteed 65 percent to 100 percent tuition depending on how long they have been enrolled in school in Buffalo.

The nonprofit also partners with more than 100 private colleges and universities, but those agreements come with stipulations, including a $5,000 annual cap for families earning more than $75,000.

The most recent data provided by Say Yes shows 67% of Buffalo students who graduated high school in 2017 enrolled in college the following fall. That’s up from 57% in 2012, the year before Say Yes came to Buffalo.

But data also shows the percentage of Say Yes freshmen who returned for their sophomore year of college has continued to decline with each class, dropping from three-quarters of the students returning for their second year to 71% to 68% over the program's first three years.

What quickly became evident was that Say Yes and its partner colleges needed more support for students, many of whom may be first-generation college students struggling with the academic rigor required by college coursework. Others may be from low-income backgrounds coping with life outside the classroom.

“It just doesn’t disappear when they get a diploma from high school. Those needs continue when they get a scholarship from Say Yes,” said Kriner Cash, superintendent of the Buffalo schools. “Truth be told, when you start peeling the onion in higher education, they have some of the same challenges we have graduating kids out of high school.”

That’s where the Gates money comes in.

The funding will be used for five major initiatives:

• Adding a total of 11 new “college success” counselors on the campuses of Buffalo State, Medaille, Villa Maria and ECC.

“As a first-generation student, often times you don’t even know what you don’t know,” said Conway-Turner, “so it’s important having individuals who can get to know the students really well and help them navigate the transition from high school to college.”

“With these resources, we’re really excited about the opportunity of making a difference here,” said Kenneth Macur, president of Medaille.

• Creating on-campus mental health clinics staffed by licensed clinicians to help Say Yes students deal with some of the social or emotional challenges that can prevent them from succeeding in college. Say Yes provides similar services for grades K-12 in the Buffalo Public Schools.

“And it’s not just students from the City of Buffalo, they’re coming from all over,” said Matthew Giordano, president at Villa Maria. “Students are dealing with some really difficult issues, a lot of traumatic issues. They’re talented and smart, but they need the extra support.”

• Establishing a mandatory college-transition curriculum for all Buffalo students graduating high school.

“I think that’s a really exciting part of this,” Giordano said. “I’m not aware of the kind of effort that we’re talking about where the city school district and the colleges will work together to create a curriculum jointly so it can be as much of a seamless transition into college as possible.”

• Building a comprehensive data system to help Say Yes and its partner colleges better track the needs of students, like if they had ever been homeless, relied on a food pantry or visited one of the Say Yes clinics.

“In K through 12 you can gather a lot of information about the student, the family, the needs,” Conway-Turner said, “but there has never been a vehicle that allowed the information to be shared when you go to college — so you start over again trying to figure out the needs.”

• Embedding “near-peer” mentors — recent high school graduates now in college — in Buffalo high schools to offer students advice on how to prepare and what to expect in college.

Buffalo is one of just five U.S. communities — Dallas;  Chattanooga; Tacoma, Wash.; and Rio Grande Valley, Texas being the others — to receive the Gates funding aimed at improving educational outcomes from Pre-K through college, Rust said.

And while Say Yes is working on a plan to sustain the initiative beyond two years, Rust hinted at the potential for more philanthropic support if the model is successful.

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