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Syracuse Students Say 'Yes' to Education

NEA President Van Roekel and Education Secretary Duncan promote innovative reform effort at magnet school


By Tim Walker

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visited Martin Luther King Elementary magnet school in Syracuse, New York to spotlight the Say Yes to Education, an education reform initiative committed to increasing high school and college graduation rates for underserved, inner-city youth.

“This program models what education reform can look like when it’s moved beyond theory and rhetoric,” says Van Roekel. “Here in Syracuse, we’re looking at a collaborative program that’s actually succeeded in getting more underprivileged kids into higher education. These are kids whom the current system doesn’t serve well.”

The program provides underserved, urban students comprehensive support systems to help them graduate and attend college. Say Yes offers free college tuition to any Syracuse student who completes high school and meets college entry requirements. The program has already helped generate higher graduation rates with its chapters in Philadelphia, Cambridge, and Hartford. In 2007, Syracuse became the first city in the nation to launch Say Yes district-wide.

When Van Roekel first visited NEA members at the MLK school back in June, he was struck by the level of collaboration that teacher unions had established with local businesses, private foundations and civic leaders. Inspired by what he saw, Van Roekel lauded the program in a meeting with U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“When I met with Secretary Duncan a few days later,” Van Roekel recalled, “I told him he had to take a look for himself in person.” Duncan scheduled the visit for the start of the school year and invited Van Roekel to accompany him.

Joining Van Roekel and Duncan to discuss the program were a large group of education and civic leaders, including New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) President Richard Iannuzzi, and Say Yes to Education President Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey.

The Say Yes model, Schmitt-Carey told the gathering, has been implemented, tested, and refined and is already having an effect on students. Schmitt-Carey says the teamwork and shared commitment has been overwhelming and will ensure that the results seen in other cities will be duplicated in Syracuse.


“It’s all about coming together,” she told the gathering. “All of us – government, educators, unions, business – can be pioneers in helping urban, lower-income students go to college. We are putting our differences aside and working together.” Schmitt-Carey thanked NEA and NYSUT and praised the Syracuse Teachers Association for negotiating new agreements to provide flextime for district social workers and make them 11-month employees. As a result, more social workers were added in every building.

“The program provides essential support for students,” explains social worker Antoinette Singleton. “Real health services, for example, and counseling. Now classroom teachers are able to concentrate on teaching.”

Van Roekel believes the program can serve as a reform model across the country. “Say Yes to Education will change the system for every child in Syracuse,” Van Roekel said. “I want this to work because I want there to be a model for every child."

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