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Say Yes Buffalo is rapidly changing expectations for many inner-city students and parents – and laying the groundwork for a dramatic shift in how post-high school opportunities are perceived in the future.

Just four months after the scholarship program was introduced, the school district estimates some 90 percent of eligible seniors have applied to at least one college or vocational school, a big increase over the estimated 55 percent of a year ago.

In addition, 92 percent of the seniors have filled out Say Yes applications, with two weeks still to go before the April 1 deadline.

Adding to the momentum is news that New York University, Columbia University and Fordham University have joined Say Yes Buffalo's private college compact. That means, for instance, that NYU's four-year undergraduate tuition would be free for families with incomes of less than $75,000, and families making more than that would receive $20,000 toward the four-year cost.

“We're working closely with Say Yes Buffalo and the entire community to create a college-going culture, and we're very pleased with the progress being made,” Superintendent Pamela C. Brown said.

“We set a pretty lofty goal at the beginning of our school year of having 100 percent of our graduating seniors complete at least one college application, and that their families complete a financial aid application. Based on the latest numbers, we're absolutely thrilled.”

That sense of excitement was echoed by Samuel Radford III, president of the District Parent Coordinating Council.

“We're in a culture where the vast majority of us don't go to college. It's a long journey, and I don't want to give any illusions about how long a journey it is, but we've got a great first step, and that first step matters,” Radford said.

“Say Yes has been an awesome partner. We have the possibility of a whole new future that we didn't see.”

Say Yes covers the tuition costs that remain after federal and institutional grants and scholarships are considered. The tuition costs are covered regardless of family income for graduates accepted to one of the more than 100 participating SUNY/CUNY schools and private institutions, and for vocational certificates for careers in the culinary arts, building trades and health fields, among others.

To be eligible, students must be residents of Buffalo and have been continuously enrolled in a public or charter high school from at least ninth grade, with exceptions for students with refugee status. They also must have applied for all available federal and state financial aid programs.

The program was announced Dec. 20 with the backing of a broad array of public and private entities, and a scholarship fund that, with a $50,000 donation announced Thursday by the Nyamekye Foundation, now stands at $18.4 million.

Outreach started in January. Eight of 10 planned community meetings have been held, with attendance between 30 to 85 people. Those meetings have helped reveal gaps in community awareness.

For instance, Ralph Hernandez, a member of the Buffalo School Board, hosted a meeting at Lafayette High School, and he said that out of an audience of about 60 people, no Hispanics were in attendance. The crowd included many immigrant families, who spoke with several translators present.

That led Say Yes to involve more community institutions, such as the Belle Center on the West Side, the faith-based community, and minority media to help get out the word, said David Rust, Say Yes Buffalo's executive director.

Things are only beginning, he said.

“By fall of 2015, we will have Say Yes staff members in each public school,” he said. “Their primary job will be to help with nonacademic barriers to success, such as social services and mental health.”

Clotilde Dedecker, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo and one of the program's key supporters and funders, said she was heartened by a story an elementary school teacher told her.

A seventh-grader, the teacher said, scolded his younger brother for poor behavior, warning him he wouldn't get the Say Yes scholarship if he didn't shape up.

“We want the Say Yes Buffalo information to get to every child, understanding not every senior is going to want a Say Yes scholarship. If you're an A student from a low-income family in the United States of America, you can get a full ride anywhere. There are going to be seniors that get full rides to any number of private colleges. But this isn't about the superstars; it's about every kid,” Dedecker said.

The school district has played an essential role, according to Rust.

“The superintendent has prioritized college for graduating seniors. She doesn't toot her horn, but we've never had more access. She gives us key decision makers for everything we need. She's opened every single door for us that we've needed,” Rust said.

Every other Thursday, Superintendent Brown, representatives from SUNY/CUNY schools, private colleges, Radford, Phil Rumore of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, foundation leaders, and city and county representatives hold Say Yes strategy meetings at McKinley High School.

Much of the credit goes to guidance counselors working one-on-one with students, said Will Keresztes, associate superintendent for educational services, who has been involved in the process.

The Say Yes program, he said, has been everything he could have hoped for.

“For me, the partnership is exactly what we wanted to experience. It's exactly what public education should look like and how it should work,” Keresztes said.

“What we're starting here will have an impact for generations to come. It's fairly predictable that children who go to college will have that same expectation for their own children.”

Keresztes said the response by inner-city parents counters the view that many don't value education.

“I tend to disagree with that the more I look at it. I'm finding parents, regardless of their circumstances, ultimately want the same thing all parents want. For this particular campaign, they share the same dream that their children will go to college, and our job is to help facilitate that any way we can.”

Maxine Murphy, an East Side parent, said Say Yes is a game-changer because it lightens the load on her and her grandson, a senior at East High School, of whom she has legal custody.

“My grandson won't have to come out of college in debt, and it helps me out knowing there is more money I can help him with in other areas that scholarships don't pay for,” Murphy said.

Radford said he's never seen such marshaling of resources and single-minded focus for improving Buffalo's schools.

“If someone had told me that was possible, I wouldn't have believed it. But here it is, and it's happening.”



email: msommer@buffnews.com