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High Marks for Say Yes to Education in Syracuse

Ryan Delaney

The thunderstorms that rolled through upstate New York Tuesday afternoon kept George Weiss' plane grounded in New York City.

So Weiss, the philanthropist and founder of Say Yes to Education, decided to drive up to Syracuse in order to make it to a student event Tuesday evening.

He told a crowd at McKinley-Brighton Elementary School Wednesday morning that the long drive was worth it when a student came up to him teary-eyed.

She told Weiss that he had given her a hug two years earlier when she graduated high school. Now, after graduating from a community college with the cost covered by Say Yes, she wanted another hug.

"Any time you see the smile on these kids' faces and the hope," Weiss said. "This is what it's all about, the hope."

Syracuse was the first city in the nation to implement the Say Yes to Education program four years ago. (Buffalo also signed on late last year.) Weiss was back in town to give a report card on how the program is going.

Along with promising college tuition to students who earn a diploma after spending at least three years in a Syracuse high school, Say Yes has started tutoring, afterschool and summer programs.

Some of the numbers since the 2008-2009 school year, when Say Yes began, as provided by Say Yes officials:

  • Number of students dropping out after 9th grade: down 44 percent
  • Value of college scholarships given out to nearly 2,000 students: $11 million
  • Students enrolled in afterschool programs: 5,100
  • Number of 9th graders passing the algebra Regents exam: up 31 percent


Just how much Say Yes has invested in the Syracuse school district so far, Weiss said he didn't know.

But over the next few years Say Yes will reduce its level of funding and put more burden on the city and school district to pay for the programs.

"But Say Yes and Syracuse, we're going to be together forever," Weiss said. "This city is too important to us. I'm not saying we're going to fund it forever, but that's where the citizens of this great city are [stepping] up."

"A new life"

Of all the speakers Wednesday morning - school officials and politicians alike - the most poetic speech came from Jaquiel Ash.

Ash is a 2010 graduate of the city's Nottingham High School. As of this spring, he's also the recipient of an associates degree.

"I took my chances in the city of Rochester," Ash said to the crowd. "Attending Monroe Community College with the hope this new scenery, accompanied by this new mentality, would create a new life. I was again a child, taking upon every opportunity with no regard to shame."