SYRACUSE – Ask the kids in Room 202 in McKinley-Brighton Elementary School what class they’re in, and they’ll holler the answer with all the enthusiasm their 8-year-old lungs can muster – which is quite a bit.

“2026!” they shout, referring to the year they expect to graduate from college.

Yes, they’re in third grade, but Tyranesha and Aaron and Treasure and their two dozen or so other classmates think of themselves as members of a college graduating class many years in the future.

Their horizon has shifted purely by design.

In the four years since Say Yes unveiled its college tuition guarantee for Syracuse high school graduates, many of the city’s schools have begun embracing a different culture: one that assumes every child will go to college if they choose to do so.

Say Yes has also helped institute a variety of support services to put college within their reach academically, socially and emotionally.

“The biggest difference is our children now have a goal. They weren’t even thinking about graduating from high school before,” said McKinley-Brighton Principal Colleen Levett. “We’ve given them the opportunity to dream.”

Even the kindergartners are reminded at every turn that they are destined for a long and successful academic career.

“Good morning, professors and scholars,” the principal greets them during morning announcements every day.

Signs in the hallways proclaim the college class years for even the youngest of students. Teachers wear lanyards bearing the names of colleges and universities. Staff members last year wore academic caps and gowns to the moving-up ceremony for fifth-graders, to underscore its importance.

But it’s more than just rhetoric. Superintendent Sharon L. Contreras, working in collaboration with Say Yes, has made data a primary driver of what happens in the classroom at McKinley-Brighton and every other school in the city.

Teachers in Syracuse are acutely aware of the need for students to score 3’s and 4’s on state tests, on a scale of 1 to 4. And they’re not shy about emphasizing that to their students.

In Room 202 at McKinley-Brighton one recent morning, teacher Matthew Lochner handed back to students a reading comprehension test they had taken. He reinforced the numbers they should be shooting for.

“You know your goal is a 3 or a 4,” he said. “If you’re at a 2, it doesn’t mean you can’t be at a 3 or a 4 – it just means we have some work to do.”

Tackling poverty head-on

Setting academic expectations higher for children certainly helps. So do energetic, dedicated teachers and principals such as Lochner and Levett.

But students in poverty often face a series of barriers that make it harder for them to excel in school – and Say Yes has spent four years implementing support to address them.

Some students bounce from one relative’s house to another from week to week. Others deal with drug-addicted parents. Many live in places where concerns about mere survival trump less pressing concerns such as finishing homework or getting to school on time.

For many Syracuse students, just getting to school regularly presents a challenge. While the problem seems simple, the solution is not.

“It’s not as easy as giving a kid an alarm clock,” said Roshana Daniel, a school support specialist. “It’s an iceberg. What you see is not what it always is.”

When students come to school late – or not at all – or get into fights or won’t sit still in class, adults need to do more than just quash those behaviors, she said. They need to use them to help decipher what underlying problems are causing them.

“Nobody ever asks the kids what they need. We just tell them to sit there and be quiet,” Daniel said. “All those behaviors are just little cries for help.”

Daniel is one of dozens of school support specialists that Say Yes has helped the district add in the buildings. Along with her are family support specialists such as Katrina Thomas, who each make home visits twice a month to students’ families.

That sort of additional in-school staffing is just one example of the kind of support that Say Yes has helped the district provide to students in the last few years.

Among the others:

• Legal clinics give families access to free legal advice on a range of issues, from landlord-tenant disputes to child-custody issues.

• Financial aid nights walk families through the process of filling out forms and understanding what types of aid are available and how to qualify.

• Mental health clinics are being moved into the schools. Private agencies are setting up within the schools themselves, making their services more accessible to families who might otherwise have a hard time keeping appointments because of transportation challenges. Soon, nearly every school will have a clinic on-site.

• After-school programs have also been moved on site at the schools, providing families with two hours of free child care every day. Half the days each week are focused on academics, while the other half provide activities such as African drumming, guitar, cooking lessons, or Lego construction.

• Summer programs also give families with free options for their children.

Asking community to help

All of these additional services come with a price tag.

Money spent on services outside the classroom has to come from somewhere – in some cases, from money currently being spent in the classrooms.

Say Yes has itself invested more than $10 million in the Syracuse schools, and has also attracted millions more in cash and in-kind donations from the private sector.

In addition, the group hired consultants to comb through district and county budgets to find money that wasn’t being spent in the most efficient ways.

In some cases, existing programs were tweaked to become more effective – such as moving after-school programming into the schools themselves, to make the programs more readily accessible to families.

Consultants hired by Say Yes recommended a number of changes within the district’s budget, including increasing class sizes to make it possible to cut 46 teachers; eliminating scores of teaching assistants; and cutting back on the number of study halls.

The reduction in teaching assistants alone was pegged at a savings of $4 million.

Levett sings the praises of Say Yes and all that it has helped to provide for her students.

“We have truly changed the culture of what our expectations are of students,” she said. “Just because a high level of my students come from poverty doesn’t mean they can’t achieve.”

She also acknowledges that the district’s budget cuts have taken their toll.

The school no longer offers academic intervention services – which were once mandated by the state – to students who score low on state tests. Class sizes in many classes, including Lochner’s, have crept up close to 30. Teaching assistants have been cut.

To compensate, some schools have asked the community to pitch in.

Levett found more than 30 attorneys from Bond Schoeneck and King to give up their lunch hours three times a week to read with third-graders. Nearly a dozen tutors from Syracuse University work one-on-one with second-graders on their literacy skills. And the principal is working on lining up more SU students to help with fifth-grade classes.

“As the funnel has gotten smaller and smaller in support of students, I went out and recruited more support,” she said. “What I tried to do was provide supports at every grade level.”

Getting questions answered

Some of the programs that Say Yes has introduced cost relatively little.

For instance, the group offers a variety of programs – many of them in conjunction with Syracuse University – designed to interest high school students in college and prepare them for the academic and social challenges that it brings.

About 50 teenagers at William Nottingham High School stopped by after school one recent afternoon to listen to a few SU students tell them what it takes to get into college – and what it takes to succeed.
Many of the Nottingham students will be the first in their family to go to college. The nuances and complexities of the process can be daunting. They were full of questions: How many colleges should you apply to? What do you have to include on each application? What if you have low SAT scores but want to go to a good college?

And then there were the questions that sought to decipher what it’s really like, what happens when you arrive in a world that is foreign to you.

“Some of my friends were into the streets. Being from Syracuse and going to Syracuse University, I still had those friends,” Nottingham graduate Dexter McKinney told them. “They might have been still hanging out on the block or whatever. I had to find a way not to do what my friends were doing.”

The divide between the goal of college and the realities of getting there, though, remain significant.

At the end of the panel discussion at Nottingham High, an adult asked how many students planned to go to college. At least 15 hands shot up.

And how many planned to attend the free five-week SAT prep class starting that Saturday? No hands went up.

“It’s free. There’s breakfast. There’s lunch,” George Theoharis, an associate dean in Syracuse University’s School of Education, pleaded with the teens. “Every kid last year improved their scores at least 100 points.”

This is the second of two parts. Read part one here.