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New York: Breaking Down the Barriers to College

by Rebeca Logan

Fourth grader Marisa Thomas is only nine years old, but she already knows she wants to go to college and thanks to Say Yes to Education, a community wide effort in Syracuse, New York, she is well on her way to accessing a higher education, and for free!  

Marisa attends Martin Luther King, Jr. Applied Science Magnet Community School which is part of a unique city wide program which offers free college tuition for graduating students to attend State University of New York schools, Syracuse University or Cooper Union.  

But it is not only the promise of a free college education that can motivate children like Marisa. Before she even graduates from the 4th grade she will be able to participate in after school activities, mentoring programs, social-emotional health support networks and academic events aimed at overcoming the barriers to graduation faced by inner city students.  

The district-wide effort, launched in 2007 unites the efforts of teacher unions, civic leaders, local businesses and private foundations, to increase the graduation rates and post secondary education of the students who attend the city's public schools. Syracuse is the first city in the nation to institute the Say Yes to Education program across the 32 schools that make up the Syracuse City School District where six-hundred graduates are already attending college and 2,500 high-schoolers are receiving extra support from Say Yes tutors, mentors, social workers and others.  

 "The say yes program works with our school professionals. It is a joint group that sits with each student to decide what that child needs", explains Anne Marie Voutsinas, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association.  

As each student is evaluated, they are put into one of the programs developed to best serve their needs and aspirations.  

 "I think that one of the most important parts of the Say Yes [program] is that we have all the stakeholders at the table. We have community organizations to provide after school services, we have government officials, the mayor who sits in. The county executive is involved. Certainly our teachers are at the table, our teachers unions are at the table, Syracuse university is at the table and our school board members are there, so that everyone has had a chance to dialogue about the program", added Voutsinas.  

 The effort received a recent boost as the newly elected mayor of Syracuse, Stephanie Miner made it one of her top priorities in her first State of the City address, which opened with Say Yes students leading the pledge of allegiance.  

 "I am more committed than ever to doing everything I can as Mayor to assure that Say Yes, now in its infancy, grows and becomes financially sustainable so it can reach its full promise for students and for parents selecting Syracuse as the place to raise their families", promised Miner as she addressed city leaders this January. "It is important that the message of Say Yes is simple, loud and clear: Say Yes is for everyone", she added, calling the program "a remarkable glimmer of hope".  

This glimmer of hope is seen on a daily basis by educators such as Lorraine Crocker a media specialist at Marisa Thomas' school. Crocker, who has worked at Martin Luther King, Jr. Applied Science Magnet Community School, for more than 11 years, has noticed how the Say Yes program is changing her students.  

"I can see where it is providing them with many enriching experiences and opportunities which they otherwise would not have. For example in the library, I see them asking for books about things they have learned in the after-school program. And they are very interested and that makes me very happy because I love books", said Crocker with a huge smile.


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