Say Yes to Education (SYTE) first came to FourPoint for strategic counsel in 2009, one year after its launch in Syracuse, NY. In SYTE communities, public high school graduates are eligible to receive scholarships covering the “last dollar” tuition – the remaining balance after federal and state aid and other scholarships have been taken into account – to any in-state public college or university, regardless of family income. Similar scholarships are available to students meeting income qualifications through the more than 100 private colleges and universities in the SYTE Higher Education Compact. SYTE also helps districts locate the funds to pay for critical student supports such as counselors and social workers. With a goal of ensuring all students were eligible for this life-changing benefit, SYTE wanted to incentivize high school graduation in its communities and mobilize community assets to lower barriers to success.
SYTE leadership also recognized that students couldn’t take full advantage of the scholarship benefit unless they entered college prepared by a rigorous K12 education. In addition to wraparound supports, they wanted to directly support districts’ improvement efforts. FourPoint’s previous work turning around low-performing districts was a key impetus for the engagement.
FourPoint’s tailored approach for SYTE is twofold. First, we place a strong emphasis on the quality of the academic program that students receive. Second, we take a comprehensive community-based approach to identifying and implementing solutions. SYTE sees communities as the unit of change and thus is reshaping how communities collaborate to support education. Our experiences show us that the combination of a high-quality academic program, scholarship incentive and student supports can be transformative not only for students, but for the entire community. In places like Buffalo, SYTE’s second implementation site, and Syracuse, new hope for the future can turn around years of declining fortune.
We began our work with thorough reviews of the school systems in Buffalo and Syracuse. Through surveys and interviews with key stakeholders, classroom observations, and reviews of data, we assessed how the districts instructed students, supported students with disabilities, managed human capital and improved school quality.
Based on findings, we made a series of recommendations to the school districts and community partners designed to help them prioritize their resources. In Syracuse, we recommended they re-conceptualize the delivery of special education services and encouraged the district to focus more deeply on early literacy to reduce referrals to special education in later grades. We also recommended and helped to support the restructuring of the district’s talent management office to better place and support effective educators and leaders in Syracuse schools.
In Buffalo, we found that the district lacked a systemic approach to preparing all students for college and careers. We also found that operations were scattered and ineffective, and that the central office was unable to support schools in delivering an effective education to students. FourPoint recommended a number of strategies intended to transform the school system, including detailing staff roles and responsibilities, reorganizing and staffing the talent management department, strengthening behavioral and academic supports for students, and developing a robust professional development system.
In addition to district reviews, FourPoint chairman Christopher Cross began providing direct support to SYTE’s senior leadership team – advising them on policy and partnership issues in initial and future cities, considering how and where SYTE might extend its impact, and helping to conceptualize a new Weiss Institute, which aims to share lessons from SYTE’s experience with other cities attempting to mobilize community resources to achieve similar goals.
Buffalo’s SYTE initiative successfully made high school graduation a communitywide effort, drawing together the mayor, city council and county executive with the social service, higher education, business and philanthropic communities. Because of the strong cross-sector engagement, STYE was able to withstand seven superintendent transitions in six years. Each new superintendent knew that staying committed to SYTE was a non-negotiable because of the strong community support.
Both Syracuse and Buffalo took FourPoint’s review recommendations to heart, leveraging their strengths to build internal systems to support improvement. Since beginning this work, SYTE has seen a 16-point increase in high school graduation rates in the Buffalo Public Schools. There has also been a 10 percent increase in graduates who enroll in post-secondary education. These improvements will not only change the lives of students, they will help to improve the local economy as well.
SYTE has recognized that it can’t meet high community demand for its mission with its current deeply place-based model. In response, it has formed the Weiss Institute, a field-building center in partnership with America’s Promise Alliance that will expand the capacity of communities to make it possible for all young people to earn a college degree or other postsecondary credential, breaking the cycle of poverty that is so detrimental to life success. Based on counsel from FourPoint, the Institute will also commission relevant research, convene experts and community leaders and facilitate cross-city sharing through site visits and technical assistance.