May 25 — 5:11 pm, 2011

Getting systems in place for college access and success

The Say Yes program set the stage for new efforts to help whole groups of students earn college degrees.

weiss 0 Photo: Stephen F. Sartori

It was nearly 25 years ago that George Weiss made headlines by offering free college to 112 mostly impoverished 6th graders from Belmont Elementary in West Philadelphia, promising to pay their tuition and provide needed services along the way.

Two decades later, 18 had earned four-year college degrees. And Weiss had learned enough about the herculean effort needed to shepherd low-income children into and through higher education to refine and expand his approach.

Weiss’s offer, in 1987, was one of the first high-profile programs designed to expand college access for whole groups of students in inner-city neighborhoods. Since then, many other organizations have waded into this difficult work. Most offer financial assistance and mentoring to students while helping school systems find ways to adequately prepare students academically.

Another such program is the Citi Postsecondary Success Program, which operates in Philadelphia, Miami, and San Francisco. Funded in part by the Citi Foundation, it works in four Philadelphia high schools to expand college access services and help teachers better prepare students for college.

The challenges go well beyond the financial. Students are surprised by their lack of preparation for college work, said Rochelle Nichols-Solomon, who works with the program.

"Right now there is not a lot of transparency," she said. Students don’t understand that remedial courses are not credit-bearing; they think college means debt, not greater opportunity.

Following are portraits of these two approaches.

Say Yes to Education

George Weiss no longer offers free tuition to random classes of students. Today, Say Yes to Education, his foundation, works with the city of Syracuse, N.Y., on an ambitious plan that offers free college to every student but also intends to change the school system, impact how government delivers social services, and alter community attitudes about college attainment.

"Doing just a singular school doesn’t change the neighborhood," said Weiss, still enthusiastic about using his fortune to transform lives. "It doesn’t change the expectations and aspirations of a city."

In trying to get students to college, Say Yes quickly discovered that removing financial barriers wasn’t enough, and that 6th grade might already be too late to change life trajectories. It found itself wading more deeply into social services and family supports, while reaching down to younger and younger students.

It started with 6th graders in Philadelphia, but moved to 5th graders in Hartford, 2nd graders in Cambridge, and kindergarteners in Harlem. When it finally returned to Philadelphia, the cohort was preschoolers.

Gradually, Say Yes began offering support to siblings, then helping parents go back to school. In Harlem, Weiss persuaded lawyer friends to open clinics where families could get help with issues like eviction and found ways to provide health and mental health services.

By 2007, when Say Yes hired Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey to run the foundation, Weiss was ready to cast a wider net. She wrote a strategic plan for an entire city based on recognizing "the inability of the education community alone to solve" problems that deter low-income students from college. It asked a lot, including a "new municipal government structure" for social service delivery, as well as a "broad-based community and political commitment to sustain a universal and career success agenda."

Syracuse, a struggling city of 140,000 with more than 80 percent of its 21,000 public school students meeting federal poverty guidelines, jumped at the chance.

"Say Yes brought resources and a clear methodology on how to get there," said Ann Rooney, the deputy county executive for Onondaga County, which provides health and human services to Syracuse.

Offering free college is "the sexiest part" of the Say Yes model, Schmitt-Carey said, the carrot that gets attention. But more important is coordinating an unprecedented collaboration among the school district, local governments, corporations, non-profits, and colleges.

"We were looking for partners willing to work with us to fundamentally restructure how we work together as a community," said Schmitt-Carey, who formerly worked for the New American Schools Foundation.

Say Yes Syracuse is now in its third year of a five-year, $14 million effort. Starting in 2008 it divided the city into quadrants, gradually adding afterschool and summer programs, legal clinics, and other services to each section. By 2012, there will be health clinics and social workers in all schools citywide.

Weiss’s goal is for most of the cost to gradually be absorbed by the public sector and local private partners. The recession caused cutbacks in the program’s state funding. So far, though, "the power of the collaboration and the strength of the idea have withstood all this," Schmitt-Carey said.

Today, Say Yes "is our reform strategy," said Syracuse school Superintendent Dan Lowengard. He said he believes so strongly in the approach that when forced to make cuts, he kept the social workers and other linchpins of the model, laying off teachers instead.

"We’re spending less but we’re spending it differently because of Say Yes," said Lowengard.

Rooney said that Say Yes has allowed the county to bring services directly into schools: "We have better access to children and families than we did prior to Say Yes."

She said that while agencies always talked about working together more efficiently, it took an "honest broker" with a vision and a plan like Say Yes to make it happen. Signs are already encouraging: more families enrolled in Medicaid, fewer children in placement for mental health reasons or in the juvenile justice system.

"Our numbers have gone down dramatically," she said. "We are able to engage families … before they get to an all-out crisis."

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Vice President Joseph Biden, and National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel have visited Syracuse and praised Say Yes as one answer to increasing college attainment.

So far, 1,000 students are getting free college in the State University of New York or City University of New York systems or with one of 25 private college partners. The University of Syracuse takes city students through Say Yes and also provides mentors, summer camp counselors, and other assistance.

Lowengard said the scholarships have encouraged some recent graduates to attend four-year instead of two-year institutions. But he expects the real payoff to be down the road, as younger students now benefiting from services come up through the system.

Working on the quality of curriculum and instruction "is longer and harder to do" than aligning outside services, Lowengard said, adding that the district is working at it, prodded both by Say Yes and federal policies.

Say Yes is now negotiating to expand into other cities.

"We haven’t raced into this," said Schmitt-Carey. "This is an organization that took 20 years to figure out the model."

Postsecondary Success Program

Now in three cities, this program also promotes better coordination of services but is more focused on high schools and curriculum change.

Aimed at first-generation college students, the five-year program started in 2009. The Philadelphia Postsecondary Success Program is centered on four high schools, Roxborough, Benjamin Franklin, Kensington Business, and Kensington CAPA. Partners include the Philadelphia Education Fund (PEF) and the Academy for Educational Development (AED), Temple and Lincoln universities, and Community College of Philadelphia.

"The goal is trying to work with these schools to create a college-going culture to improve college access and success rates," said Rick Moses, who is coordinating the program for PEF. The program brings together professors at the three partner institutions with high school teachers, organizing site visits and workshops. "We look at the alignment of instruction and start a conversation about how kids should be prepared," Moses said.

In addition, it begins exposing students to college through trips and other activities in 9th and 10th grades.

Nichols-Solomon, who is with AED, has been working on college access in Philadelphia for nearly two decades. She has learned that promoting college awareness requires more than trips and helping students fill out financial aid forms.

"Those are important, but really we’re talking about creating a system that supports college readiness," she said. "You can’t just do awareness if you are not changing classroom, school, and district practice."

Crucial is helping students deal with realities like their academic deficits when they enter college, the purpose of remedial courses, and financial anxiety.

Many students’ friends and family tell them that "the college stuff you’re talking about means debt. They take out loans, but don’t go anywhere," Nichols-Solomon said. "Access is not good enough; we have to pay attention to the whole completion piece."

The program works with colleges to assist underprepared students and keep them enrolled.

But she added that changing instructional delivery in high school is crucial – and difficult. Simply working to raise test scores is "a distraction" from the goal of preparing students for college, she said.

At the participating high schools, there are "instructional rounds" designed to make sure that teachers are promoting college-level skills. It is too early to gauge results, but the program hopes to expand.

Said Nichols-Solomon: "It’s hard work to create a high-quality educational experience for the neediest of needy kids."

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