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A small, well-financed group of reformers approached Buffalo school officials more than a year ago, offering the district something that seemed almost too good to be true: a promise to pay the tuition of every city high school graduate who went to college – and millions of dollars for tutoring, after-school programs and other help to get them there.

All the district had to do was hand the group the figurative keys to the schools.

In making its case to Buffalo district officials, Say Yes to Education offered as proof what it already had accomplished in the Syracuse city schools.

And the results there seemed impressive.

Syracuse students improved their performance on Regents exams, Say Yes officials said. More were graduating from high school. And more were enrolling in college. The results in Syracuse extended beyond the classroom walls, according to Say Yes. Fewer children were placed in foster care. More families were enrolling their children in city schools – and some families were even moving back into the city, driving up housing prices.

“We have seen the power of the scholarship program being tied to a very explicit strategy to improve the schools,” Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, president of Say Yes, said a year ago, in announcing the group’s partnership with Buffalo. “A school system can’t do this on its own when you look at the level of need.”

It sounds almost miraculous in the landscape of urban education, where change is arduous and slow.

And Say Yes has, indeed, helped the Syracuse schools make significant strides in just a few years.

Ninth-grade scores on one Regents exam went up 10 points in a single year. Hundreds more high school graduates are attending community colleges. Enrollment in the city schools increased for the first time in a decade.

The trouble is, Say Yes exaggerated many of its claims.

And in some cases, Say Yes takes credit for improvements in Syracuse that it is – at best – only partially responsible for.

As the Buffalo Public Schools embark on a partnership with Say Yes, supported by millions of dollars from Buffalo’s philanthropic and business communities, the experience in Syracuse suggests that Say Yes could have a substantial effect on Buffalo’s troubled city schools. But despite the group’s marketing claims, the Syracuse results suggest no one should expect miracles.

“The reality is it will take time. But people think if there aren’t big changes right away, it isn’t working. And that isn’t the case,” said Ross Rubenstein, an associate dean and chair in the Maxwell School at Syracuse University.

The beginning

George Weiss, a successful money manager, founded Say Yes to Education 25 years ago, adopting a sixth-grade class in Philadelphia and promising each student that if he or she graduated from high school, he would pay for their college education. The incentive seemed to work. Weiss gradually expanded the program to other communities, adopting a small number of students in each one and eventually adding support services in conjunction with the college tuition guarantee.

Four years ago, Say Yes decided to scale up its efforts. Rather than focusing on dozens of kids at a time, the group decided to work with thousands at a time. The national nonprofit launched a partnership with the Syracuse city schools in 2008, implementing support services in one-fourth of the upstate city’s schools each year and offering a college tuition guarantee to all students starting with the Class of 2009.

More students in Syracuse are starting to see college as a viable option.

Chris Benitez, a 10th-grader at Nottingham High School, has two older sisters. Neither went to college – but he plans to. Syracuse University and Le Moyne College are among his top picks.

“Since I was in eighth grade, I’ve been looking forward to college,” he said. “I always thought I’d go to college free because of Say Yes.”

Nearly everyone intimately involved with Say Yes in Syracuse praises the group’s efforts. The nonprofit invested more than $10 million of its own money into the schools, after all, to lift up a failing urban district.

While the tuition guarantee tends to attract most of the attention, that is only one portion of the Say Yes program. Many leaders of the group say that the bigger component of their work involves supports – tutoring, mental health services, social workers, after-school programs – for students, especially those who live in poverty.

In both Syracuse and now in Buffalo, the group also spent a great deal of time and energy convincing the leaders of the local school district, city and county – along with the teachers union – to do something unorthodox: talk to each other. Regularly. And share information and resources.

That in itself is practically revolutionary.

The collaborative approach gets almost universally rave reviews from the leaders involved. Everyone from the deputy county executive to the president of the teachers union in Syracuse said Say Yes is adept at pulling off a profoundly common-sense approach to improving the schools.

The trick was to get everyone to see how the collaboration was mutually beneficial.

Syracuse University has been on board from Day One in Syracuse, helping in large and small ways: providing student tutors in the classrooms, holding SAT prep classes, organizing panel discussions.

“Say Yes is an incredible partnership. We can point to all these collaborations. That becomes the platform for our faculty to go after grants,” said Douglas Biklen, the dean of Syracuse University’s School of Education. “We are part of one of the most ambitious districtwide reform efforts in the country. It helps us attract faculty and students.”

A mixed bag

Say Yes officials frequently tout the results they’ve seen on one particular Regents exam in Syracuse: a 30 percent increase in the number of ninth-graders passing the Regents algebra exam, they say.

In reality, the biggest increase in the ninth-grade algebra passing rate was a one-year increase of 10.3 percentage points, up to 47.8 percent, a significant increase.

But how did Say Yes come up with an increase that was triple that size?

Asked for a detailed breakdown of the results that Say Yes has achieved in Syracuse, Eugene Chasin, chief operating officer of Say Yes, provided a copy of a study by Steven M. Ross, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, and Laura Rodriguez, a Syracuse University graduate student.

Ross and Rodriguez magnified that 10.3 percentage point gain by calculating it as an increase of 27.2 percent over the original passing rate.

What’s more, according to Ross and Rodriguez’s own data, over the longer term, the ninth-grade algebra results were improving much more slowly. Over three years, the schools posted a three-point increase in the percentage of ninth-graders passing the algebra exam.

Say Yes officials generally don’t talk about results on other Regents exams.

The Buffalo News conducted its own review of Syracuse students’ performance on Regents exams in eight courses, based on data made available through the state Education Department.

Using the base year of 2007-08, the year before Say Yes began rolling out support services for Syracuse students, the results were a mixed bag. Students did better on half of the exams – math and science – four years later, but fared worse on the other half – primarily social studies and English.

‘Remarkable results’

The primary goal of Say Yes is to enroll more students in college. In Syracuse, the group says, it has achieved remarkable results.

In addition to academic supports, Say Yes does a lot to put college in reach for students. The group, for instance, organizes financial aid help sessions for families new to the process; offers free Saturday SAT prep classes for high school students; and brings college students in to tell high school students how to navigate the process and what to expect.

In fact, there was a significant increase of Syracuse graduates going to college among the Class of 2011: 770 graduates enrolled in college – a 53 percent increase over the previous year. Most them were attending community colleges.

But the increase was not as impressive as the 60 to 70 percent increase that Ross and Rodriguez cited.

That’s because instead of comparing the freshman college class each year, they were counting the freshman plus the sophomore class in the second year of their study.

And there is another caveat. Say Yes officials concede that they do not know how many Syracuse high school graduates in total actually enroll in college in any given year – they only count those who file papers with Say Yes.

The district does not track student enrollment in college – so there’s no way to know whether the increase means more students are actually enrolling in college, or more students are filing papers with Say Yes.

Before Say Yes came to Syracuse, nobody had ever counted how many high school graduates in that city enrolled in college.

Beyond the classroom

Say Yes officials say that the support services they put in place throughout Syracuse yielded benefits that extend beyond the classroom.

The group has helped put more social workers in the schools, placed a mental health clinic in every school, provided after-school programs in the buildings, offered summer programs and even provided free legal advice for families.

Say Yes reports on its website that “the number of county children in foster care has decreased by 45 percent since 2005,” which is accurate, according to numbers provided by Onondaga County.

But the numbers the group cites are countywide. And Say Yes serves children in the city of Syracuse only. And Say Yes did not begin providing services in Syracuse until 2008.

“I cannot attribute all of that to Say Yes,” said Ann Rooney, the deputy Onondaga County executive. “Say Yes is one component of that. Yes, the numbers have come down – but it’s a multipronged strategy.”

SU study

Say Yes contends that the group’s college tuition guarantee has started to reverse the steady drop in enrollment of Syracuse public schools by drawing middle-class families back to the city.

“After declining enrollment over 10 years prior, now there is stability and some increase,” Chasin said.

There was, in fact, a one-year enrollment increase in Syracuse – an overall increase of almost 2 percent, or 383 students.

It was driven almost entirely by an increase in students of Asian descent.

A study by two Syracuse University professors, Robert Bifulco and Ross Rubenstein, last year found that after annual enrollment declines for 10 years, the Syracuse schools experienced an increase in enrollment in 2009, the year after Say Yes came to town.

The number of Asian students increased by more than one-third, to 1,034, building on a similar increase the year before.

The white student population grew as well – by exactly eight students, to 5,823. The increase is minimal, Rubenstein said, but significant after losing 200 or more white students annually for many years.

But the study pointed out that there are many possible factors – including changes in birth rates and an improved city economy – that may have contributed to the overall enrollment increase.

“A more plausible competing explanation is that the city experienced a large and sudden increase in immigration from Asian countries unrelated to the Say Yes program,” Bifulco and Rubenstein wrote.

A number of factors

Home values in Syracuse have increased 3.5 percent since 2009, the Say Yes website boasts.

That is true.

But, just as with the foster care placement rate, a number of factors affect home values.

Bifulco and Rubenstein found that housing prices did increase in Syracuse following Say Yes’ partnership with the schools, outpacing suburban increases. In contrast, housing prices in Buffalo “saw a dramatic decline” during the same period, they found.

But the researchers also found an increase in housing prices in Rochester, a city where Say Yes has not partnered with the schools.

The bottom line: There’s no way to tell what effect, if any, Say Yes has had on housing prices, according to the researchers. Real estate agents in the Syracuse area say that even now, more than four years after the program was introduced, most homebuyers still don’t know what Say Yes is.

“I have had people in the suburbs say they want to relocate to the city because of convenience, but not because of Say Yes,” veteran realtor Pei Lin Huang said.

Eager to impress

People involved with Syracuse schools almost universally offer kudos to Say Yes for all the work it has done to help children and their families.

So why does a group that has achieved good results exaggerate its significant accomplishments?

Say Yes leaders declined to respond to questions regarding the veracity of their claims.

Some people familiar with the group note that Say Yes is heavily reliant on private donations to fund the college scholarship and say the group is eager to impress potential donors.

In an earlier interview, one of the group’s leaders noted that Say Yes is making a conscious effort to build its political clout at the state level. There was a reason the group chose to partner with Buffalo as its second district.

“The more districts we have in New York, the more influence we have in Albany,” Chasin said.

Already, the strategy is paying off, he said.

“Mary Anne [Schmitt-Carey] is on the governor’s education reform commission,” he noted. “Would she be on that if we were just in Syracuse? I tend to think not.”

Rubenstein lauded the progress that Say Yes has made in his city. The results are sometimes hard to measure, he said, and may not satisfy the public’s appetite for immediate change – but that doesn’t mean Say Yes hasn’t been successful.

“Be very, very skeptical of any program that says it can achieve dramatic results overnight,” he said. “If you think about how intractable the problems in urban education are, it seems implausible that minor tweaks in a program will have results like that.”

email: mpasciak@buffnews.com

This is the first of two parts.

MONDAY: How Say Yes makes a difference in Syracuse