Thomas Aston, who graduated this past spring from John Hay High School in Cleveland, had always believed he would go on to college. But the path for him to achieve his dream of a higher education is not one that he could have imagined until recently.
Thomas had long hoped that football would be his ticket to college. When those plans didn’t work out, he had to place his hope in something different. For Thomas, and thousands of students in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, the realization of those hopes has come in the form of a new partnership known as Say Yes Cleveland.
On a snowy morning last January, students and parents from across Cleveland filled John Marshall High School to learn that community leaders from the city, Cuyahoga County, and Cleveland Metropolitan School District—as well as the Cleveland Foundation and the United Way of Greater Cleveland—had come together to announce Say Yes Cleveland and its audacious mission: that every city public school student would not only graduate high school, but that they would be able to go off to college with their tuition completely paid and armed with the tools needed to successfully complete their degree.
That announcement was met with excitement across a city that has seen the rate of college enrollment for its high school graduates decline from 54 percent to 40 percent between 2011 and 2017. Students like Thomas saw the opportunity to ponder their future in a different light. He is now one of more than 300 members of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District high school graduating class of 2019 to go off to college, and other postsecondary programs, with scholarships and other supports from Say Yes Cleveland.
“Through its tuition support, Say Yes pretty much helped me decide that Cleveland State University would be the best place for me to attend,” says Thomas, who is a first-year history major with aspirations of becoming a high school history teacher. “This program is giving kids throughout the city hope. It’s like throwing an extra spark in the pile of wood that can help ignite the flame to bring the city up.”
Say Yes Cleveland is the latest iteration of a national effort that began more than 30 years ago, with the founding of the national non-profit, Say Yes to Education. Over that period, Say Yes has brought communities together with the promise of boosting postsecondary participation and success. Including those students in Syracuse and Buffalo, New York and Guilford County, North Carolina, and now with the addition of 37,000 students in Cleveland, over 170,000 students have access to postsecondary tuition scholarships as well as K-12 academic, social-emotional, and health and wellness supports designed to help students advance along the pathway from early childhood to and through college readiness. Since the organization’s inception, $220 million in scholarships have been provided through Say Yes to Education and its partners for students to attend in-state public institutions or one of the 120 private colleges and universities that are members of the Say Yes Higher Education Compact.
More than three decades earlier, Say Yes was a harbinger of what today has evolved into the “College Promise” movement, growing dramatically across the country. Say Yes Cleveland joins more than 300 cities and towns in 47 states that are working tirelessly to keep college within reach—affordable and accessible for thousands of students who may think college is simply not possible.
Hundreds of communities are now evolving their programs, offering financial support and wrap-around resources to increase Pre-K-12, college persistence, and graduation rates for success in college, career, and community. Say Yes offers the country a “full pathway” model that begins at cradle and goes through college, career, and community with the goal for every student to reach the American dream.
For students like Thomas, scholarship funding can be life-changing—but only if they graduate high school, and do so prepared for a postsecondary education. That is why a key ingredient of the recipe being deployed in Cleveland is how to best leverage existing community resources to address pinch points where students are falling off the pathway to academic success. As a first step, Say Yes Cleveland has made placing Family Support Specialists inside every public school a core component of its model. These first-for-the-district staff serve as liaisons between student needs and community service providers.
Utilizing a proprietary software program known as the Postsecondary Planning System, Family Support Specialists are able to connect Cleveland students and their families with hundreds of social service programs that address issues from housing insecurity to healthcare at little or no cost. Family Support Specialists and the Postsecondary Planning System have already rolled out in 16 Cleveland schools, as part of a four-year plan to introduce the system into 100 percent of the city’s public schools.
And it is having immediate success.
Amber Huff, the parent of an eighth-grader in one of Cleveland’s public schools, says the Family Support Specialist at her daughter’s school came through for her family in a time of need.
“My daughter broke both pairs of her glasses and we really didn’t know what we were going to do,” Huff said. “Thankfully, through the Family Support Specialist at her school, we were able to receive a voucher for a free pair of new glasses. It’s a good feeling to know that if and when you really need help, someone is there for you as part of an extra support system.”
Eric Gordon, Chief Executive Officer of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, said he considers the Family Support Specialists and service opportunities to be a game changer in Cleveland.
“The ability to connect our students to the services and supports they need to be successful is already making an impact in our community,” said Gordon. “With Family Support Specialists in place, we now have a conduit between the students, their families, and service providers ready to remove the barriers that previously hindered student success in high-poverty districts.”
Thanks to Say Yes to Education, the College Promise Campaign, and the many local partnerships growing in hundreds of localities, efforts to bulldoze barriers are creating hope and a new reality for thousands of students in Cleveland and across the nation.
Eugene Chasin is the President and Chief Operating Officer of Say Yes to Education. To learn more about the strategies and impact of the communitywide partnerships in Cleveland and other Say Yes cities, go to SayYesToEducationConsulting.org.