Back in the summer of 2008, literally a month after I arrived in Syracuse to join the Community Foundation, I met with leaders of Say Yes to Education and the Syracuse City School District (SCSD). They presented the outlines of an emerging partnership to expand college access for SCSD students in collaboration with local partners, including the City of Syracuse, Onondaga County, Syracuse University (SU), the Syracuse Teachers Association, Onondaga Community College, and others. Ultimately, the Community Foundation became a partner in this effort, providing $2 million in scholarship and program support and becoming the financial ‘backbone’ of the program. Much has changed over the last twelve years and it is worth looking back as we move forward.
The partnership created in 2008 has been resilient. Over the last twelve years, there have been a host of leadership changes among key partners – three mayors, three SCSD superintendents, two SU chancellors and two county executives. Nevertheless, the Say Yes Syracuse program and the commitment of its partners have endured. Say Yes continues to support SCSD kids, with hundreds receiving scholarship support each year from a locally managed and dedicated endowment at the Community Foundation that leverages significant additional financial aid for college-bound students.
Social and emotional supports have been a key component. Say Yes is broadly understood as a scholarship promise but much of the work of the partners has focused on social and emotional supports for kids and families that impact academic achievement. Supportive services for the mental and emotional health of SCSD students were reimagined and amplified by Onondaga County, creating a successful template for work with other districts. A focus on families facing eviction and other legal challenges resulted in early Say Yes financial support to expand the Volunteer Lawyers Project – which today is a thriving local nonprofit facilitating pro bono legal services for those in need.
Local partners have been resourceful. SRC, Inc., in what is likely one of the largest (if not the largest) philanthropic gifts ever made by a local company, made a $5 million matching gift to the Say Yes Scholarship Endowment at the Community Foundation in 2011, which was key to securing a total of $10 million in local private funding from donors. Based on this demonstration of local support, New York State stepped up through the Upstate Revitalization Initiative to provide a $20 million grant to complete the endowment. Today, a $30 million endowment sustains the scholarship promise for SCSD students by providing $1.2 million in scholarship grants each year.
As we move into 2021, Say Yes Syracuse also moves into a new phase. The national office of Say Yes to Education has concluded its work and devolved responsibility to local chapters in Syracuse, Buffalo and Cleveland. The Community Foundation stepped in to take on the role of managing the local office and employing its staff. We’re pleased to welcome Ahmeed Turner, executive director of Say Yes Syracuse, and Dana Lyons, manager of scholarship access and completion, to the Community Foundation staff. Ahmeed will also become a member of the Community Foundation’s management team. The Say Yes Syracuse office will move to a second-floor office in the Philanthropy Center in January.
For students and families, the day-to-day operations of Say Yes Syracuse will look and feel the same. We will continue to offer a fully endowed last-dollar tuition guarantee scholarship to all eligible SCSD students and all wrap-around supports, including family support specialists, mental health clinics and legal services will continue unchanged.
With permanent support for local students in place, and continuing engagement among the partners, we’re looking forward to the next chapter for Say Yes Syracuse.