Say Yes to Education edges closer in Cleveland as questions remain

The Say Yes to Education program has been pushing students in Buffalo, N.Y., toward college the last few years. Say Yes and local officials are nearing agreement to bring the program to Cleveland.

CLEVELAND, Ohio – The Cleveland school district and Say Yes to Education took another incremental step this week toward launching the college scholarship and student support program in the city.

But many major questions still remain unresolved about raising money to pay for the scholarships, how support services will be delivered to students and which charter schools in the city will be part of the program.

School district CEO Eric Gordon said he hopes these will be largely resolved before the end of the year so that scholarships will be available to this year’s high school seniors.

“I don’t want to lose another year of opportunity for our kids,” Gordon told the Cleveland school board recently.

Gordon and some other education advocates in the city view the N.Y.-based program as a potential “game-changer” for Cleveland’s childrenand economic future. Say Yes helps cities target social and education supports to students to prepare them for college. The communities, under Say Yes guidance, then offer scholarships to cover all college tuition costs after other financial aid is used.

But he and others involved in the lengthy negotiations won’t commit to any deadline while multiple parties – the district, Say Yes , the city, Cuyahoga County, the Cleveland Teachers Union, philanthropic foundations and multiple service agencies – gradually work out how to cooperate on a plan.

The Cleveland school board took the latest step by accepting this week a basic operating structure for Say Yes efforts that makes them separate from the district, county and city. That avoids the work being dependent on the whims of any future superintendent or mayor.

Though the district will have a representative on a still-unformed operating committee, the committee will be independent, as will a separate board overseeing the scholarships.

The county, city and Cleveland Teachers Union are expected to approve this structure soon. Matt Carroll, chief economic growth and opportunity officer for the county, said it would likely be approved next week or the week after. He said a vote of the County Council is not needed.

CTU President David Quolke said the union’s executive committee would look at the agreement at its November meeting.

The agreement also calls for the national Say Yes organization to hire and pay the salary of a locally-based director. Say Yes has begun advertising the position.

“Their notion is that this person can only be an honest broker with all the agencies if they don’t work for any one of us,” Gordon told the board.

Raising money for the scholarships is a major remaining hurdle. Though Say Yes will contribute $15 million toward launching the effort, that can’t be used for scholarships and Cleveland must raise an endowment fund to cover them. Based on targets in Buffalo, N.Y., a slightly smaller city already in the Say Yes program, that would need $120 million or more.

The fund would cover scholarships for 25 years before exhausting the money, Gordon told his board, and the city would then have to decide whether to continue them.

Officials involved in Say Yes planning here won’t release a donation target, say how much they have raised so far or even announce any large donations that could spark more donors. They will only say that fundraising is going well.

Planning for how social services will be provided in schools – like health and dental clinics in other Say Yes cities – has just started preliminary work, Carroll said. The county would be a major part of this plan by diverting existing social services into schools.

“We’re kind of pre- that stage,” Carroll said. “That really hasn’t taken place yet.”

And committees working on scholarships still haven’t decided who will be eligible for them. Graduates of Cleveland school district high schools will be eligible, but rules are not set for how many years a student must attend district schools to qualify.

Gordon told the board that varying levels of scholarship based on years spent at district schools is likely.

There is also no decision, Gordon said, on what charter school students will be included. That has not been a major issue in other Say Yes cities, but many more students attend charters here. Gordon told the board that charter schools sponsored by the district will likely be included, as will those that have decided to be formal partners wit the district.

But they could be added later, after Say Yes launches for just district students, Gordon said, while stressing that nothing has been officially decided.

He also stressed that charters in the program would have to be part of the data-sharing network Say Yes is creating that combines academic and social service data to better help students.

Alan Rosskamm, CEO of the Breakthrough charter schools that have long partnered with the district, said he is glad that there is a path for charters to be included. He said he wants to learn more about how that will work.

“From our point of view, given the opportunity, we want to be very much included,” Rosskamm said.