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Philly Say Yes students head to college, as Obama commends Syracuse program

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

Kadidja Dosso spent last Thursday packing to go off to college, preparing for the ride ("depending on what kind of driver you are, it could be four hours or seven hours") to Hampton University in Virginia, where she plans to do a five-year program and get her MBA.

Anthony Walter is staying closer to home, at Chestnut Hill College, so he can be near his parents, both of whom are disabled. He plans to major in criminal justice.

Neither could have afforded college without help from the Say Yes to Education program, founded by philanthropist George Weiss in 1987. Kadidja and Anthony are members of the last Philadelphia class to benefit from Say Yes; they were made the promise when they were about to enter kindergarten at the Bryant Elementary School 13 years ago.

The same day that they were preparing, President Obama was in Buffalo and Syracuse, N.Y., touting his program to make college more affordable and accessible. In both places, he gave a shout-out to Say Yes, which has moved from randomly choosing classes of students for college scholarships to working with entire cities.

In Syracuse, where the program has been for more than five years, every student who has graduated after attending a public or charter school for at least three years gets a free college education at one of the State University of New York campuses, or at a number of private schools that participate (including powerhouses like Harvard, Penn, Georgetown, and Duke). For the private schools, there is a family-income cap of $75,000 and the student must qualify for admission.

Say Yes works with the school system, the city and county governments, local universities, the teachers’ union, and private partners to locate clinics in schools and enrich student experiences. Students get extended-day and extended-year programs, tutoring, SAT prep, and help with applications for the financial aid they are entitled to. Say Yes provides "last dollar" tuition scholarships, not including room and board.

A recent five-part series in the Post-Standard in Syracuse found a "mixed bag" of results, but an upward trajectory in college-going rates. About 2,100 students have taken advantage of the scholarships, and about 90 percent persist in college to a second year, well above national averages. It also said that Say Yes had managed to get all the disparate players working together, and attributed part of the program’s diminished promises to a reduction in expected and promised state education aid.

The Buffalo program is just getting started, but follows the same template.

Weiss started the program in 1987, when he promised a free college education to 112 6th graders from the Belmont Elementary School, not far from Penn, his alma mater. Weiss said his goal was to break the cycle of poverty and lift students into the middle class. That experience (which I chronicled for the Inquirer for 13 years) was an eye-opener as many of the students fell victim to poverty, family issues, early pregnancy, and drugs, despite the promise and the constant attention of Weiss and the Say Yes staff. Several died, most of them through violence.

Still, 20 got four-year college degrees and several others got two-year degrees, which was remarkable given the demographics of the group and what we now know about Philadelphia students’ college-going patterns. The latest study we have shows that of the class that entered a District high school in Philadelphia in 1999, just 10 percent had gotten a two- or four-year college degree 10 years later. And that is a much more racially and socio-economically diverse group than the Belmont class.

Before moving to the whole-city model, Weiss adopted more classes in Philadelphia; Hartford, Conn.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Harlem, with the intervention beginning earlier and earlier. The Harlem group and the Bryant Elementary group both started in kindergarten.

Of the 45 students who started in the Bryant kindergarten, 36 graduated this year, and the remaining nine are expected to graduate next year. None dropped out, said the Bryant chapter’s coordinator, Maisha Sullivan-Ongoza, who was with them from the beginning. The program helped many of them get into charter and special-admission schools when they left Bryant after 4th grade. The bulk of them went to KIPP-North Philadelphia.

Sullivan-Ongoza also got them involved in social justice issues, through Freedom Schools in the summer and year-round activism.

"They did a whole lot around trying to bridge the [opportunity] gap," she said. "They would investigate and bring issues to us. They went to the School District meetings about funding cuts."

With money raised by the students and families themselves, several made a humanitarian and cultural trip to Ghana. “We put a great emphasis on the students’ history and culture to ensure they have pride and strong self-esteem about who they are as African Americans,” Sullivan-Ongoza said.

Kadidja went from Bryant to Girard Academic Music Program and Central High. She is convinced she would have gone to college regardless of Say Yes, but said the program helped her set her sights higher and pursue college without worrying about cost.

"It helped determine the college I went to," she said "I wouldn’t have had the means to not be in debt for the rest of my life."

More important, "they prepared us not just to get in, but to succeed in college," she said, "by keeping our mind on our goals. They taught us resilience. They never gave up on us and taught us never to give up on ourselves."

Anthony, who went from Bryant to KIPP and then to Boys’ Latin High School, doesn’t think he would have gone to college at all without the program, given his parents’ health and their fixed incomes.

"Say Yes has helped me out a lot," he said. "It goes beyond the school atmosphere to our personal life. When my grandmother died, they gave me a lot of guidance during that rough period."

Due to the vast expansion of Say Yes, Weiss is no longer able to personally get to know the students. And he thinks that the graduation of the Bryant group probably marks the end of the Say Yes involvement in Philadelphia.

"The model has changed — we’re trying to change whole cities around," Weiss said. The program wants to keep expanding to other locales, but he doesn’t see how he might ever manage to coordinate the new model of Say Yes within the city’s complex educational and political environment.

"This is a new millennium — the future is exciting and the past rewarding," said Weiss, who is now 70. "I can’t speak for the board, but I don’t believe there are any intentions in Philadelphia. We’ve been there for 26 years. It’s been a good, long run."

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