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Say Yes to Education off to good start in Cleveland, but challenges remain

January 20, 2019

Say Yes to Education off to good start in Cleveland, but challenges remain

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The launch of the Say Yes to Education college scholarship and student supports program on Friday offers a huge boost and shot of hope to Cleveland and its students.

But challenges remain.

The city has raised the bulk – almost $90 million - of the $125 million needed to make college tuition free for the next 25 graduating classes of Cleveland school district seniors. That’s a huge start, and it puts the city ahead of other “college promise” cities.

But there’s still $35 million to raise. And there are several more steps before Say Yes can be the “game changer” for the city’s schools, population and economy that some hope it will be.

Among them: Making sure the college tuition “promise” isn’t broken over time, placing social services in schools with little new money to pay for them, and integrating charter schools into the program.

“It’s a big opportunity for our city,” said Alan Rosskamm of the Breakthrough charter schools and one of the organizing leaders of Say Yes. “We’ve got to execute it well.”

What is Say Yes to Education?

Say Yes to Education is a New York-based “college promise” program that pledges free tuition for all graduates of the city school district that gain entrance and attend college or recognized job certificate programs.

Cleveland is the fourth city to partner with Say Yes, after Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., and Guilford County, North Carolina.

Free college is the biggest gain for students in the Cleveland school district, one of the poorest in America, where tuition and the fear of being in debt for years blocks many from attending.

Say Yes also requires social service supports in schools, often called “wraparound” services, to ease family and personal troubles that slow students from succeeding in school, graduating and attending college.

All seniors in the district can receive the scholarships for college in the fall. Graduates of two charter schools that partner with the district - Horizon Science Academy and Northeast Ohio College Preparatory School - can use them the following year.

All students already in the district or these two schools will be eligible, but any new students coming to the district must attend a district or partnering charter all four high school years to qualify.

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Fundraising challenges

Even with its good start, raising the final $35 million for scholarships could still be difficult for Cleveland. Many of the 200 “college promise” programs around the country, including other Say Yes cities Syracuse and Buffalo, have had trouble raising all the needed money after starting.

Six years after its launch, Syracuse was able to raise only about a third of its $30 million fundraising goal for the much-smaller district. It took a $20 million economic development grant from the state in 2016 to close that gap.

Say Yes in Buffalo had raised just $37 million between 2013 and last year of the $133 million it needs to sustain scholarships over time. Last year it renewed its efforts with a new five-year $100 million campaign, when a donor offered as much as $25 million to the program if other donations come in.

A non-Say Yes promise program in Pittsburgh also struggled and fell short of its $250 million 10-year goal by close to $50 million.

Saleen Ghubril, executive director of the Pittsburgh Promise, says he will meet his goal after a delay, but noted that raising money for scholarships is harder than other efforts.

“What we’re basically selling here is transforming the lives of kids and being motivated only by the good feeling you get,” Ghubril said. “That’s a different ballgame than saying we’ll name this hall on a campus or this exhibit hall after you. Those are challenges.”

In its favor, Cleveland must still raise a much lower percentage of its goal than the other cities had at their launch. Because of the trouble in Buffalo and Syracuse, Say Yes wanted Cleveland to have at least 60 percent of the target before the announcement.

Cleveland already has more than 70 percent of the goal.

The amount from each donor so far has not been released, though the Cleveland Foundation is the dominant donor. Other well-known donors include the George Gund Foundation, Key Bank Foundation and Cleveland Browns owner Jimmy Haslam’s Haslam 3 Foundation. Haslam’s brother Bill, the governor of Tennessee, started a statewide, but more limited, college promise program in that state.

Keeping a promise

A key part of a “college promise” program is making sure the promise doesn’t become a “maybe” or a “sorry, but…”

Say Yes in Guilford County, N.C., had to change its eligibility rules for financial reasons, angering families who had planned their lives based on a “promise.”

Under Say Yes, need-based federal grants like Pell Grants are used first and Say Yes covers the gap. Since more upper-income kids that would receive little or no Pell Grants used scholarships in Guilford County than expected, the burden on the Say Yes scholarship fund was too high.

So Cleveland has capped scholarship amounts to $5,000 a year for any families making $75,000 or more.

Whether the public will be able to see how the Cleveland scholarship fund is doing over time remains to be seen.

Though The Plain Dealer requested the original fundraising and scholarship projections for Guilford County, Say Yes declined. Say Yes also declined to share projections during planning of the likely fundraising needs for Cleveland based on different eligibility rules.

The Plain Dealer also asked this week for the projected scholarship use and spending Say Yes is using here, now that it is launching. Though Say Yes, district, county, city and Cleveland Foundation officials were present for that request, they declined and left that decision to another planning committee.

Wraparound services

The Cleveland school district already provides “wraparound” social services in a quarter of its schools which were targeted for major improvements a few years ago. Under Say Yes, all district schools will receive them – and more services too.

But don’t expect lots of new money to flow in to pay for these services, as many non-profits and other social services agencies had hoped at first.

Say Yes doesn’t pay for new services, nor does the scholarship fund. The program aims to have existing agencies and non-profits in the city better organize to target services to help students.

The only new money will cover the key part of providing these services - hiring social services coordinators known as “family support specialists” for every school in the district. Much like the “site coordinators” in place at wraparound schools now, they will organize summer school, after school, tutoring and family programs for the schools.

These coordinators will be paid by Cuyahoga County using federal child welfare grants, said Matt Carroll, the county’s interim director of health and human services.

This first step will be adding the family support specialists and basic services to schools over four years - 15% of schools this fall, 25% next fall, then 30% in years three and four.

Once those are in place at a school, officials will look at where to add much larger services like health and dental clinics.

Including charter schools

Whether to include charter school students in both parts of Say Yes – the scholarships and the wraparound services – was a major decision for Say Yes planners in the city. Charters are privately-run public schools that are independent of the district.

Including charter school students would stretch limited resources, while locking them out would go against Gordon’s aim of partnering with many and treating them as equals in educating the city’s kids.

That’s a bigger challenge here than in other Say Yes cities. Cleveland has 17,000 charter students, more than all other Say Yes cities combined.

Planners reached a compromise: The 19 charters that are either sponsored by the district or that formally partner with the district and share school district levy funds – a practice started with the district’s improvement plan in 2012 – can be included.

All of the charter school partners can start applying to be part of the wraparound services for the 2020-21 school year. To be included, they must agree to join the Say Yes data-sharing system in which student academic records are combined with any court and social service records about the student and their family, then used to tailor services to meet their needs.

“The data is so important,” Gordon said, so charters must share the same information that district schools do. “Those who do and meet the standards, are eligible to provide those services.”

How many charter high schools will want to become partners to they can participate is unclear. The largest remaining charter high schools in Cleveland are dropout recovery schools and unlikely to want to be in the program. Another 20 charters in the city offer high school grades, but many have modest enrollments in a full K-12 school.

The Constellation charter school network has several of these, but officials there have been cautious about committing to any partnership that would reduce their independence. They have not partnered with the district, even with the offer of levy dollars over the last several years.

Rosskamm said he considers the plan fair to charters because they can start applying now, without being left until the end.

“We’ve been assured that all sectors will progress kind of equally over four years,” he said.

These are the charter schools that formally partner with the Cleveland school district:

Citizens Academy, Citizens Academy East, Citizens Academy Southeast, Citizens Leadership Academy, Cleveland Entrepreneurship Preparatory School, Entrepreneurship Preparatory School-Woodland Hills, Near West Intergenerational School, Promise Academy, Stonebrook Academy, Village Preparatory School, Village Prep Willard, The Intergenerational School, Stepstone Academy, Village Preparatory School-Woodland Hills, Cleveland College Preparatory School, Northeast Ohio College Preparatory School, Lakeshore Intergenerational School, Menlo Park Academy, Horizon Science Academy, Cleveland.

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