How Syracuse public schools can be a model for the nation

While public school districts across the country are being forced to tighten their belts, there is something remarkable happening in the city of Syracuse. Once the home to one of the weakest school districts in New York, Syracuse is undergoing something of a renaissance of its public school system thanks to Say Yes Syracuse.

An $88 million plan, Say Yes Syracuse is an outgrowth of the nonprofit organization Say Yes to Education, which has chapters throughout the Northeast. Say Yes Syracuse, however, is the first of these chapters to be adopted by a city school district rather than an individual school.

The program aims to increase graduation rates and college enrollment. It does so by offering services that would otherwise be unavailable to students, such as tutoring, after school programs and SAT preparation: services that the Syracuse City School District has been forced to cut.

The centerpiece of Say Yes Syracuse is its scholarship program. Say Yes is aligned with 54 private institutions that offer a full scholarship to students from homes with under $75,000 in annual income. Say Yes offers full tuition – after need-based government aid – to students admitted to New York state institutions.

Already, Say Yes is yielding positive returns. According to the program’s website, ninth grade dropout rates between 2009 and 2010 dropped by 44 percent. The number of students passing the ninth grade algebra Regents exam increased by over 30 percent. Since 2009, nearly 2,000 Say Yes students have enrolled in two and four-year colleges.

Syracuse’s investment in education is one that should serve as a model for the rest of the nation. Investment in education has returns that go far beyond graduation rates: It creates a well-educated workforce that is equipped for both occupying and creating high-paying jobs.

Say Yes’ scholarship program not only gives students the opportunity to pursue higher learning but also allows them to do so without the burden of student debt that can bring about financial ruin to young people.

While the program is still young, Say Yes Syracuse has great potential to ameliorate the city’s economic problem. The effects of a strong public school system are felt several times over. Crime rates have been decreasing, economic growth increasing and property values rising – home values in Syracuse have seen a 3.5 percent rise since 2009.

In December 2011, the city of Buffalo implemented Say Yes to Education at the district level as well, becoming the second city to do so. It is encouraging to see New York’s public schools giving education the investment it deserves. If similar programs can reach school districts throughout the nation, the U.S. could be on its way to solving its education problem.