SYRACUSE, N.Y. (WIVB) - The "Say Yes to Education" program has come to Buffalo bringing hope to a beleaguered school system where only 47 percent of its high students graduate.
The promise of free college tuition for all who graduate has gotten the attention of a lot of students. But can this program really turn around a failing system? News 4 traveled to Syracuse to see how the program is working there, now in its fourth year.
With great fanfare the Say Yes to Education program was announced for Buffalo in December, its founder George Weiss offering a most incredible incentive to those who graduate, offering students free college tuition if they graduate.
"I dream about college. I dream about it. I have hope for it, and that is money I simply don't have, and "Say Yes" has given me hope," said Pandora Kew.
In Syracuse, students from kindergarten through 5th grade are offered a two-hour extended school day. One hour for academics and the second hour for developing talents and social skills. And any student that needs special counseling or even social or health assistance for the whole family will be accommodated. It is all designed to clear obstacles on the path to college.
Say Yes to Education president Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey said, "Really what are the barriers that inhibit their ability to aspire to and succeed at this post secondary level."
But in Syracuse, English and math standardized test scores have not risen dramatically.
Syracuse Say Yes operation director Pat Driscoll said, "I'm sure folks will probably want to see dramatic rises, but that will take some time."
While the emphasis has been on the younger students, critics of the program in Syracuse say not enough attention is placed on middle school students, whose needs are critical as they prepare for high school.
Syracuse Say Yes education director Debra Schoening said, "We do know that we need to focus more of our attention deliberately on mid-level education."
But students like Abdi Ali are among the 1,200 from Syracuse now attending college, tuition free. He made an academic turnaround after a Say Yes mentor told him: "Get good grades, we'll pay for your college."
"I was like, "I could do that, 'cause I'm not a dumb person." I actually I'm pretty smart when I apply myself," said Ali.
Megan Reynolds transferred from Catholic to public school to take advantage of the scholarship. She is at Syracuse University studying to become a doctor.
Reynolds said, "It's given me such an amazing opportunity pursue an education that otherwise I may not have been able to pursue."
The national Say Yes leaders are promising Buffalo a complete assessment of the school district's strengths and weaknesses, but cautioning not to expect change overnight. But then again, there's that free tuition.
Say Yes COO Gene Chasin said, "What we are doing is creating a culture community wide where the expectation is that students are going to go to college, and there are no barriers to that happening for them."
You can learn more about the Say Yes to Education program in Buffalo here.
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