June 16, 2009

Achievement through community schools at the heart of 'Say Yes to Education'

Author: Sylvia Saunders
Source: New York Teacher
community schools
Caption: NYSUT's Dick Iannuzzi stops in at an after-school program where kindergartners work on math skills. Left, student Genia Reed works with teacher Amy Vargason. Photo by Lauren Long.

It's 4:20 p.m. on a Thursday at Dr. Martin Luther King Elementary School in Syracuse and the place is still bustling.

Every seat in an after-school computer lab is filled as a teacher and teaching assistant help eager youngsters.

Down the hall, students in various classrooms, working with a college-age tutor, practice math flashcards and count in Spanish. A chorus is singing an uplifting spiritual in the music room.

Students here, for the first time, are being exposed to new enrichment offerings: leadership classes, kung fu, yoga, step dance, African art and drumming.

In the health office, pediatric nurse practitioner Theresa Zimmer tends to an 8-year-old boy's bleeding mouth, providing a salt water rinse and a warm hug of encouragement.

Dental hygienist Judy Morgillo urges him to stop wiggling that loose tooth with such gusto.

A social worker works the hallway, chatting with students and touching base with a colleague about a child's progress.

In a little more than an hour, more kids and their families will arrive for Math Night. Their ticket to admission (and free dinner) is to look at some science project displays around the school and fill out an answer sheet about what they learned.

After hours of games that make math fun, students and their families head home at about 7:30 p.m.

It's just another round-the-clock day at one of Syracuse's Say Yes to Education buildings, where the term "community school" is the real deal. Tomorrow's before-school programming starts at 7:15 a.m.

The extended day, extended year — extended everything — is a big part of the Say Yes to Education private foundation that has taken Syracuse schools under its wing.

At the heart of this pioneering program are two core components:

  • A system that provides pre-K-12 kids and their families with intensive support — from extra tutoring to health services to pro bono legal advice — to help them succeed academically and graduate from high school, and ...
  • The ultimate commitment: the promise of free college tuition, fees and books for any student who earns acceptance to one of the participating public and private colleges.

Say Yes has succeeded with small groups of kids in select cities, but Syracuse is the first in the nation to launch it districtwide.

Dollars and a dream

Wall Street financier George Weiss founded Say Yes to Education in 1987 when he promised 112 economically disadvantaged sixth-graders in Philadelphia that he would pay for their college education if they graduated from high school.

Of the pilot group, 63 percent graduated from high school; about 39 percent received a post-secondary credential. (Just a year before, only 26 percent of the Philadelphia class finished high school.)

Since then, the philanthropic program has spread to several cities with selected groups of students in Cambridge, Mass., Hartford, Conn., and Harlem.

Say Yes has begun working with younger groups, offering an increasing array of support services — after-school programs, summer camps, mentoring, tutoring and other social, mental and health care programs students need to succeed.

After all, how can children concentrate on schoolwork if their family is getting evicted from their apartment, or if one of their siblings misses class because an asthma attack sent her to the emergency room?

The results have only improved, as Say Yes has modified the program to start earlier in a child's life.

"We've learned that the earlier you start, the better the results," said Say Yes President Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey. "In fact, we are convinced that our kindergarten cohorts have a good shot at leveling the playing field completely."

The district is implementing the program gradually, adding several buildings per year, until 2011-12, when it's operating in all 36 schools and serving Syracuse's more than 20,000 students.

The higher education guarantee is open to all seniors who have spent the last three years in the district — and hundreds of students will go to a college in September.

"This is an extremely exciting and promising venture, demonstrating what's possible when there's true collaboration. NYSUT is proud to support STA in this endeavor," said NYSUT president Dick Iannuzzi. He joined officials from the union's two national affiliates on a recent Say Yes Labor-Management Day tour.

"This child-centered community school approach underscores the fact we must do much more than provide academic support," he said. "We must tackle our students' emotional, social and health care needs, too."

The Syracuse effort is groundbreaking, he said, because it is a collaborative effort among teachers, support personnel, district administrators, city and state officials, the higher education community, local businesses, community groups and the private foundation.

"I believe you will get results because the plan will change the system for every child in Syracuse," said National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel. "I want this to work because I want there to be a model for every child."

The American Federation of Teachers, led by Randi Weingarten, has made community schools a top initiative for reform.

"This program offers a wonderful vision of what it can look like," said Joan Devlin, who heads AFT's education issues department.

Union buy-in

"Since Day One, the Syracuse Teachers Association has been supportive and included at the table every step of the way," Schmitt-Carey said. "The union really helped pave the way to make it happen."

Collaboration, though a nice word, is hard work, said Syracuse TA President Anne Marie Voutsinas. "We all just want to do what's best for the kids."

Despite "bumps along the road" in the first year of implementation, negotiations have yielded some landmark arrangements, including an urban teacher calendar that compensates educators for extended hours during the school day and school year, and more time for professional development.

This summer, six Say Yes elementary schools will offer five-week academic enrichment programs. Instruction will be provided by teachers in the morning; college students will serve as "camp counselors" in the afternoon.

The union negotiated a provision to provide flex time for social workers and make them 11-month employees.

This made it possible for Say Yes to add a social worker in every building so individual caseloads would be fewer than 200 students. Organizers worked with the union to build in time for home visits by social workers.

Funding comes through a mix of local, state, private and foundation sources. More federal funding is possible since community schools are supported by the Obama administration.

Schmitt-Carey wants to make the program self-sufficient within six years. While the program's extra support comes to about $3,500 per child per year, urban school districts typically spend $10,000 to $14,000 per pupil annually using state and federal funding for after-school, summer and mental health programs.

"The trick is to spend the money as effectively as possible," she said. "We identify gaps and raise money."

Thus far it's a bit more private money than originally envisioned, Schmitt-Carey said, "But we have faith there will be future funding."

So far, 24 private colleges and universities will provide scholarships to eligible graduates. SUNY and CUNY campuses are taking part with help from $1.5 million in community foundation funds.

Participating colleges require students to first tap all financial aid avenues, and some colleges require a $75,000 income cap.

Aside from providing scholarships, Syracuse University President Nancy Cantor is providing extensive technical assistance through SU's Education Department faculty and students.

Say Yes has already prompted more families to move back to the city, according to Syracuse Superintendent Dan Lowengard.

"For sale" signs in the city now include the "Say Yes" logo as a visible reminder that things are changing in this city, where fewer than half the students graduate from high school and more than 78 percent qualify for subsidized school lunches.

"We knew we had to do something dramatic to change the entire system, not just tinkering," Voutsinas said. "We knew we had to give our kids something big. It's called hope."