The financial costs associated with post-secondary education can seem daunting to many young adults. This was no different for Deka Dancil. As the oldest of nine siblings living in extreme poverty, Dancil’s main focus during her youth was the well-being of her family. When a representative from the Syracuse University STEP Program helped her to see her potential and think seriously about college, she realized she could set her academic sights high.
As Dancil was getting ready to graduate the 14th in her class of over 300 students at Henninger High School in 2009, Say Yes to Education was just being rolled out within the district – introducing her to a new opportunity to continue her education without tuition costs serving as a barrier to her dreams.
“My teacher at the time said we were all signing up for Say Yes,” said Dancil. “I’m forever grateful to her because maybe if she hadn’t, I wouldn’t have taken advantage of what turned out to be an amazing opportunity.”
Say Yes is a nonprofit community-wide partnership designed to ensure every Syracuse City School District (SCSD) student graduates from high school. It strives to provide students with the necessary preparation and support to attain, afford and complete college or other post-secondary education. In addition to scholarship support, students from kindergarten through grade 12 can take advantage of after-school programming and wrap-around supports such as mental health services and legal clinics to break down common barriers to success.
When Say Yes launched in Syracuse ten years ago, we recognized its potential to increase post-secondary educational attainment for the city’s children. As a result, the Community Foundation agreed to contribute $2 million to support Say Yes’s scholarship promise and provide ongoing convening support, fiscal management and strategic guidance. Now celebrating its 10-year anniversary, more than 3,000 SCSD students have used Say Yes scholarships to attend college, and that number is steadily growing each year.
With milestones came monumental achievements. In 2016, the SCSD achievement gap was diminished, meaning the percentage of white students matched the percentage of African American students graduating from high school. That same year, the district witnessed a 17 percent jump in its overall high school graduation rate since 2008.
Dancil, a member of the second cohort of graduating students to take advantage of Say Yes in Syracuse, went on to attend Syracuse University where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts in policy studies and a minor in real estate.
Given her background, Dancil said she had difficulty trusting new initiatives to lift her out of poverty when so many have tried and failed before. Say Yes, however, was worth taking the chance on.
Dancil is now the teen program director at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Syracuse, where she helps inspire the next generation of children undergoing the same struggles she did.
“Say Yes has been the single most impactful program to help me overcome poverty,” said Dancil. “It paid for my degree and has changed the trajectory of my life forever.”
Just like it helped Dancil, Say Yes intends to continue assisting other students with finding success and achieving their goals. Together with community partners, including Onondaga County, the City of Syracuse, SCSD, Onondaga Community College, Syracuse University, Syracuse United Teachers, Say Yes and others, we have provided support to ensure the sustainability of this program.