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Catching up on one of Philly’s first dropout-prevention programs

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

As the Notebook produces our eighth annual edition on the city’s dropout crisis, I’d like to draw attention to a program that has spent a quarter-century working on getting low-income students through high school and into college.

Say Yes to Education.

Some of the Notebook’s readers may be aware that, when I was at the Inquirer, I spent 13 years following the Belmont 112, a group of 1987 6th-grade graduates from Belmont Elementary School in Mantua who were promised a free college education by philanthropist George Weiss. Weiss, a University of Pennsylvania graduate and trustee, modeled the Say Yes program on the I Have a Dream program, which was started several years before by Eugene Lang when he impulsively offered free college to the graduates of his old elementary school in Harlem.

What is less known is that Say Yes has since expanded and evolved considerably. After adopting other classes of students in Philadelphia, Hartford, Cambridge, and Harlem, the foundation changed course to work with entire school districts. It has been working with Syracuse, N.Y., since 2008 and Buffalo since last year.

The program is still rooted in the promise of free college, but now it’s for every student who graduates from a public or charter school in those cities.

In Syracuse, interesting things are happening, including indications that the program may be contributing to a slight increase in house values (3.5 percent since 2009), as people stay put to take advantage of this offer. Though I have no statistics, I visited Syracuse last year and spoke to a handful of families who told me the program was definitely an incentive to stay.

The foundation also has an expanding list of college partners, including not just Syracuse University, which helps Say Yes run the programming in the city schools, but also the SUNY system and selective private schools, including Vassar.

In Syracuse, Say Yes has also catalyzed inter-government collaboration, as it combines expanding social services with work on academic enhancements, including tutoring, mentoring, SAT prep, and college tours. Each school in Syracuse has a health clinic. As part of the program, families get legal help for such destabilizing events as eviction. One thing that Weiss has never done, given his up-close-and-personal relationship with the Belmont students, is discount poverty as an impediment to success in school and life.

What do we know so far about the impact of Say Yes?

In Syracuse, where Say Yes has commissioned extensive assessment, a consultant hired by the foundation from Johns Hopkins analyzed data collected by the district and the American Institutes for Research, which the program is using for evaluation.

He determined that between 2009 and 2010, the number of 9th graders who dropped out, moved, or had been incarcerated declined precipitously, from 505 to 281, about 44 percent. The percentage of 9th graders passing algebra (a key gatekeeper to college readiness) increased from 29 percent to 38 percent.

In Syracuse, nearly 2,000 Say Yes students enrolled in two- and four-year colleges (public and private) between the fall of 2009 and 2011. At the end of the last school year, 818 others were eligible to attend one of the Say Yes partner institutions.

“What we’re conducting is a social experiment,” said the Say Yes executive director, Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey. “Can you rebuild community, can you change conditions that are becoming prevalent in society today? We think we can by working across government structures, by promoting public engagement, by linking the disenfranchised and the enfranchised.”

In short, "we’re trying everything,” she said.

And whatever happened to the Belmont 112?

Ultimately, 20 of them got four-year college degrees and 10 or so others got two-year degrees or certificates. Doubters considered that number low, evidence that Weiss had wasted his money. They liked to make much of the fact that as many wound up in jail as in college.

But, in fact, more recent research on high school graduation and college-going shows that the Belmont group was actually a success story. As the Philadelphia School District ramped up its own dropout-prevention efforts, it used National Student Clearinghouse data to track the class that entered 9th grade in any Philadelphia public school in 1999. It showed that only 10 percent of the group had attained a four-year or two-year degree by 2009, 10 years later. And that number included students who came from middle-class backgrounds, with parents who had college degrees, and who attended city selective admission schools.

Belmont 112 members Genise Mace and Bill Wilcox flank Randall Sims, who worked with the group for 14 years as senior project manager, at the 25th anniversary gala of Say Yes to Education. (photo by Dale Mezzacappa)

The Belmont kids came from a neighborhood that housed the poorest of the poor in Philadelphia at the time. Unbeknownst to the program until literally hours before the announcement was due to be made, 44 of them were in special education. Many of them had no idea what college was, knew no one who had attended.

Only one or two of the students had any parent who had ever attended college. I can’t be sure that the numbers are totally comparable, but it looks like more than a quarter of the Belmont 112 attained a post-secondary degree, which, in the context of the more recent data, looks like a pretty remarkable achievement.

It is true that Weiss continued to pay for some of his students even as they washed out of one college after another, but several of those students did persist to graduation.

Earlier this month in New York City, Say Yes celebrated its 25th anniversary. Weiss, as feisty as ever, has just turned 70, but hardly looks different than he did when he made the promise. Some 700 people attended a gala celebration in a restaurant across from Grand Central Station housed in what was once a grand NYC bank. Michael Strahan, co-host of the TV talk show Live! with Kelly and Michael, was the emcee; former Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb sat at a prime table. That one evening raised more than $4.5 million from New York’s elite.

Present in the throng were about 10 members of the original 112, now in their late 30s. They are parents and, in a few cases, grandparents. Some have children of their own in college.

“Without Say Yes, I don’t think I would have gone to college,” said Daniel Lamont Goings, who teaches special education in North Carolina. Damien Caldwell is a preacher in South Jersey. Weiss and Say Yes “opened my eyes to the world,” he said. Majovie Bland, who works in hospital billing, is an elected council member in Lansdowne. Genise Mace never got her college degree, but she is a published writer and a small businesswoman who is homeschooling her son. She is still in touch with Weiss. "He helps me out," she said.

Kimberly Creamer Carmichael was one of those asked to make a speech at the gathering. She is a social worker and counselor with adjudicated teen girls in Connecticut.

“When I look back on my life, I doubt I would have made it this far without Say Yes,” she told the crowd. As for what she is doing with her life, she said, “I see myself in every one of those girls. I chose to follow in the footsteps of George Weiss by dedicating my time and experience to help youth in the community in which I live. I definitely can’t donate millions, but I can be a mentor.”

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