Say Yes to Education in Guilford County had a very rocky 2017, but the program’s problems in Guilford County Schools haven’t dampened one iota the mass wave of enthusiasm accompanying the kickoff of a brand new Say Yes program 500 miles to the north – in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District in Ohio.
Residents, educators and political leaders in Cleveland are – just like their Guilford County counterparts were two years ago – sky high over the rollout of the new Say Yes program. The celebratory events, ecstatic proclamations and abundant expressions of delight in Cleveland bear a remarkable similarity to the exuberance in Guilford County when the Say Yes Guilford program started with the official announcement two years ago.
Since that confetti-laced kickoff on Thursday, Sept. 17, 2015 in the Ragsdale High School gymnasium packed with cheering students, a great deal of the enthusiasm for the program has evaporated in Guilford County. This spring, Say Yes Guilford officials announced that the program would have to go back on many of the promises it made to students and families who had tailored their educational careers and life choices around those promises. Say Yes stated that, due to a tremendous financial miscalculation, it could only provide college tuition aid to those from families in lower-income brackets rather than all students as initially promised.
In recent media accounts in Cleveland, there’s been a lot of talk about the huge benefits of the program and the promise that it will help pay the college costs for families of all incomes. However, even with the celebration over Say Yes coming to Cleveland, there is an awareness among some there of what happened here. And there’s an effort among some in that community to do everything possible to see that the program doesn’t get caught short of funding as it did in Guilford County.
The Say Yes to Education program was founded by billionaire George Weiss 30 years ago in Philadelphia when Weiss promised to pay the college tuition costs of 112 inner-city sixth graders if they graduated from high school.
Since then, Say Yes has expanded into other northeastern school systems in Syracuse, Buffalo and New York City as well as in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Hartford, Connecticut. The programs take various forms but they all center on helping students afford a college education. The usual model calls for Say Yes to pay the “last dollar” tuition cost for all students – the portion of the college bill left after all other grants and loans are taken into account.
Say Yes Guilford is for students attending selected participating colleges, including those in the University of North Carolina system. In other places, the selection of participating colleges is also limited.
Despite an awareness of some in Cleveland of Guilford County’s plight, Cleveland’s Say Yes program is starting up with the same fanfare and balloons it did in Guilford County in 2015. In one story earlier this year, the Cleveland Plain Dealer even used a picture of cheering school kids from Guilford County. The caption read “Guilford County, N.C. – residents cheer the launch of Say Yes to Education in their community in 2015.” The headline for that Plain Dealer story was, “Cleveland schools edge closer to free college for every grad.”
Like former Superintendent of Guilford County Schools Mo Green, top school officials in Cleveland are thrilled about the program. Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon gave his “State of the Schools” speech three weeks ago and he used the occasion to extol the promise of Say Yes and talk about how transformative it will be for the community. He said the program was a great fit for Cleveland.
Gordon said that, with the help of Say Yes, school, political, faith and community leaders can “do together what no one can do alone.”
He said the effects could be far reaching.
“Getting schools right is, in the end, absolutely necessary for ensuring our city’s prosperity,” Gordon said.
At online sites devoted to Cleveland news, there are naysayers who express general discontent and suspicions regarding Say Yes – though only rarely is there any mention of what happened in Guilford County. Most of the concerns are about this type of program in general, or about the effort to raise $100 million in that community.
One poster wrote, in response to a Plain Dealer article on the prospects of Say Yes, “So how well has throwing tons of money at education done in Cleveland?”
One said the program smells like the “welfare state” and one argued that it might make students less likely to excel. Others see it is a type of entitlement – though Say Yes is a private, not public organization.
“Entitlement programs already consume our tax dollars at over TWICE the rate of our defense budget!!!” one poster wrote, clearly concerned the program would end up getting tax dollars.
Peter Krouse, a reporter for Cleveland.com – which Krouse describes as the “digital arm of the Cleveland Plain Dealer – is familiar with both Greensboro and Cleveland. He used to live in Greensboro and was a reporter for the News & Record. Krouse, now a reporter for Cleveland.com, has written several pieces on Say Yes coming to Cleveland. In one article, he wrote about what happened in Guilford County and how the miscalculation occurred.
Krouse told the Rhino Times that, along with the hoopla in the Cleveland area over Say Yes, there’s also cognizance of what happened in Guilford County.
“The people up here are aware of what happened down there,” Krouse said.
According to Krouse, in Cleveland, Say Yes is generating a great deal of enthusiasm, but, in the wake of Guilford County’s shortfall, program organizers and others are being very cautious about not over-promising in that community.
“Guilford County [Say Yes] messed up and had to go back on the commitment,” he said. “It made people in Cleveland say, ‘Hey if you don’t do it right then you can get in trouble.’”
Krouse said the demographics in Guilford County are very different from Cleveland and some of the variables that made the program so costly in Guilford County would likely not be as big a factor in Cleveland.
He also said there is a great deal of support for the program there regardless of the problems in Guilford County. For instance, he said, the editorial boards of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and of Cleveland.com are supportive of the program.
“This is something we support,” Krouse said. “There is a lot of poverty here and hopefully this will help break the cycle.”
The Say Yes program in Cleveland is still being structured but currently the expectation is that it will provide scholarships without means testing.
“This is an economic development tool, so it is meant to draw families of all income levels,” he said.
Krouse said he hadn’t seen a great deal of opposition to the program, but there are certainly concerns expressed by some. One of those concerns is that Say Yes asks for a lot of charitable donations and takes a good deal of money out of an area’s philanthropic network, which makes it harder for other causes and nonprofits to find funding.
“It taps the foundations, it taps the corporations; it taps the individuals,” Krouse said of Say Yes’ fundraising efforts.
Say Yes Guilford was attempting to raise $77 million before discovering very late in the game that that was only about a sixth of the amount the program needed to provide last dollar scholarship aid to every student wanting to attend college. Means testing the scholarships took away much of the excitement regarding the program and it also meant that Say Yes would not be an economic development tool to attract affluent families to Guilford County.
In many ways, Say Yes in 2017 in Cleveland looks almost identical to Say Yes in Guilford County in 2015.
- The program has stated that it is investing $15 million over a five-year period in the Cleveland community, just like in Guilford County, where the promise was to invest $15 million in support services over a three- to five-year period.
- Cleveland, like Guilford County, must meet Say Yes criteria but they are clearly the next place Say Yes will implement the program. The community has to raise millions and get buy-in from elected officials as happened here. Long after everyone knew Say Yes was coming to Guilford County, the county was still in the “qualifying” stage.
- As in Guilford County in 2015, there is currently a debate in Cleveland whether or not charter schools will be included in the program.
- In addition to talk about scholarships, there is, in Cleveland, also talk about the “wrap-around services” that Say Yes will provide – things like after-school tutoring and other programs meant to assure students succeed.
In the fanfare of 2015 and 2016, Say Yes promised “wrap-around services” for Guilford County students, and to this day, it’s not clear exactly what those services are supposed to entail. They are said to eventually involve things like after-school tutoring, nutrition and health enhancement programs that will help students clear some hurdles that get in the way of them being able to focus on education. Say Yes picked 12 schools in Guilford County for a pilot program of wrap-around services, which were supposed to start in spring of 2017 but still have not begun.
It is extremely hard to get anyone in any official capacity in Cleveland to comment on what effect Guilford County’s problems have had on their thinking about Say Yes in Cleveland. The school district directed all questions along these lines to Say Yes officials. The City of Cleveland’s communications office at first emailed that it was “working on responses” to questions emailed by the Rhino Times, but then would not return multiple emails or phone calls sent or made over a two-week period to two employees of the office. Several members of the Say Yes implementation committee, school board members and members of the Say Yes implementation committee for Cleveland and elected officials also did not return multiple calls.
There could be several explanations for that – for instance, that the Rhino Times is not known in the Cleveland area – but one possibility is that no officials there want to in any way rain on the parade by participating in a public discussion there about what happened in Guilford County.
In Guilford County, program officials say that Say Yes has now established a sustainable level and hopes one day to get to a point where it can be a program for every student. Supporters of the program point out that, even though Say Yes Guilford fell short in its initial goals, it is still providing scholarship money that Guilford County students otherwise would not have.
There have also been two executive director changes in Say Yes Guilford this year. In February, just two weeks before the Rhino Times ran the story revealing that Say Yes wouldn’t be able to meet its promises, former Say Yes Guilford Executive Director Mary Vigue steeped down. Nadia Del Valle, the national program director for Say Yes to Education, was appointed as the interim executive director of Say Yes Guilford at that time. In September, Donnie Turlington, the former communications director for Say Yes, was named interim executive director of the organization.