By Rashika Jaipuriar and A.J. Gersh SYRACUSE, N.Y. (NCC NEWS) – Syracuse families say that Say Yes to Education is a “God-send,” according to Ahmeed Turner.
As Scholarship Director for the Say Yes program in Syracuse, Turner works with urban youth to get them free tuition at partnering colleges — what he calls the “crowned jewel” of the program.
The nonprofit foundation incentives high school graduation and college matriculation in impoverished communities by guaranteeing free college tuition.
Say Yes to Education pushes Syracuse city high school students to envision an academic future at nearby colleges.
When the program arrived in Syracuse in 2008 and partnered with the city school district, the Syracuse city high school graduation rate was 46.5 percent. That number, through the help of Say Yes, has trended upwards each year and, as of 2015 was 55.5 percent.
“It has been incremental increases over the years that suggest systematically were seeing something that is not a fluke,” Turner said. “In some communities you see a five or ten point jump. But in Syracuse, you are seeing it steadily going up.”
Since its inception, Say Yes has provided scholarships to over 2000 students in the local area, according to Turner. As of fall 2015, 133 of those students received scholarships to attend Syracuse University.
But though the program has been in Syracuse since 2008 and provided scholarships to many Syracuse City School District students, the majority of Say Yes scholars at Onondaga Community College end up dropping out.
SCSD Chief Financial Officer Suzanne Slack said the district has seen a drastic increase in high school graduation rates, but once those students get to OCC, the graduation rate is typically 17-18 percent.
However, according to Turner, Say Yes Scholars at OCC are graduating at a rate of around 30 percent, which is nearly double the two-year college’s actual rate. Though Syracuse students are persisting at a higher rate compared to the national average, Turner acknowledged that there is more that needs to be done.
“We certainly know that we want that (number) to be better and we’re working with OCC and our other two-year partner colleges to be innovative about programs for students, and the students could be doing better,” Turner said.
To improve those college graduation rates, Turner said Syracuse Say Yes has partnered with OCC and five other local colleges and universities to create the Summer Bridge program, which is designed to target students who aren’t “college ready” according to placement tests.
“That’s an opportunity for them to take nine credit-bearing courses (over the summer) to get some extra help,” Turner said.
Summer Bridge also gives a stipend to students, who are usually financially dependent on summer jobs.
Additionally, Say Yes has a partnership program with OCC called On Point for College. According to Turner, On Point for College is a plan of action that helps students who didn’t perform well academically in their first semester at OCC to get connected with the proper support services and tutoring necessary for their future success.
“OCC, like many other two year schools, has a plethora of support services — and not all of the students know about it,” Turner said. “So, us at Say Yes just try to market that and especially help those students who have been identified as needing extra help.”
Say Yes helps young students get opportunities to further their education that they wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Along with the financial aspect, Say Yes also provides resources like legal counsel, social support and extended-day learning.
With all the support offered by Say Yes, the program faces many financial obstacles. The national Say Yes organization will no longer fund Syracuse scholarships. Now, Syracuse must raise $30 million by June 2017 — only a third of which has been raised so far.
Though the Syracuse branch of Say Yes faces ongoing financial stress, Turner said that the program still has a real impact on kids who wish to continue their education past high school and become a part of the working world.
“All of them want to make a good living financially, but for the most part, they envision a career,” Turner said. “Unfortunately a lot of times this turns out to be a career that’s not in Syracuse, but in many cases students envision themselves getting a career and getting a family.”
One of those Say Yes scholars is Cora Cool-Mihalyi, a graduate of the SCSD and graduating senior and dual major in Syracuse University’s School of Education.
“Where you come from shouldn’t affect your placement or your opportunity; no student matters more than another, and that’s an ideal that I’ve stood by throughout all my time here,” said Cool-Mihalyi in a February interview with SU Today.
Cool-Mihalyi plans on entering the workforce next year in New York City, as she has already accepted a job to student teach in Brooklyn, according to Say Yes of Syracuse.
Turner said he’s passionate about his job because of the power of education and its life-changing impact.
“My mom is an educator, I grew up through education,” Turner said. “I know a lot about it through osmosis, and I personally have a very strong belief that education can change the world. I believe and it is actual and factual that education is the most qualitative indicator in quality of life.”
Although many problems plague the city of Syracuse — it has the highest concentration of poverty among Blacks and Hispanics, according to a 2015 study by The Century Foundation — education could be a remedy, according to Turner.
“Those who are college educated report that they enjoy their quality of life as opposed to others, and it is the most effective bridge out of poverty.”