After Years in the Trenches, Is This Ed Group Going to Break Out?

Say Yes to Education is one of the most interesting efforts underway to boost student achievement, so we make a point of keeping tabs on what it's up to. Its chief funder, the investment fund manager George Weiss, has poured more than $250 million into the organization's work since the late 1980s and, with the help of other funders, has expanded it from a few pilot efforts to a major operation now managing citywide efforts in Syracuse in Buffalo.  

It's an impressive achievement, both for Weiss and the Say Yes team. Weiss has made a real mark in a difficult philanthropic space known for defeating even the wealthiest funders.

On the other hand, Say Yes is not exactly on a fast track to becoming the next big thing in national efforts to improve schools. It's been a long slog just to get fully up and running in two regional cities in New York. At this rate, it could be many years before Say Yes gets wide traction nationally (assuming that's a goal) or otherwise reaches a very large number of students. 

And herein lies a common challenge for funders and nonprofits: It takes a lot of time to do things right and to test and scale a new approach to solving a problem. For every organization like Teach for America that catches fire and goes national, there are myriad smaller initiatives that struggle in the trenches for years, never quite breaking into the big timeand maybe missing their moments to do so. 

What does the future hold for Say Yes?

As we've explained before, Say Yes to Education means saying yes to extended school days, afterschool tutoring, and summer school support. But Weiss recognizes that schools can't do it all. That's why his organization's approach also means saying yes to social work and psychological support, social support for families, and cooperation among cities, schools, higher education institutions, and other players. 

In an era when debilitating education battles seem to be raging everywhere, Say Yes to Education starts from the assumption that collaboration among key stakeholders is a prerequisite for progress. Real partnership is required among city and county governments, school boards, teachers unions, and private donors. Among other things, that cooperation is needed to mobilize the needed resources for a longer school day, more social workers, college admissions counseling, and free legal clinics for families. The Say Yes model also funds computer-based monitoring of students' academic progress through elementary, middle, and high school, tracking grades, attendance, and behavior.

This is no small commitment, but for communities willing to say yes to these thingsand to put some skin in the gameWeiss says yes to paying for college for low-income kids in the Say Yes to Education program who complete high school. The organization's scholarship program provides free tuition to more than 140 partner colleges and universities. Scholarships to in-state, public universities are paid from locally-funded scholarship programs; those to private college are largely covered by the institutions themselves.

Weiss knows the challenges facing disadvantaged urban youth. The son of Jewish immigrants who emigrated to the U.S. in 1939 to escape the Nazi regime, Weiss grew up poor in Brookline, MA, busing tables when he was as young as 11. While working in a hotel coffee shop, a Boston University professor advised him to attend the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, which he did.

It was there that the seeds of Weiss' philanthropy were planted. He befriended a gang of youths for whom his fraternity hosted a Christmas party. He reconnected with them in his early years as a Wall Street broker and heard stories of incarceration and teen pregnancy among their siblings, while they managed to complete high school—something for which they credited Weiss as an inspiration.

Weiss' education philanthropy initially focused on individual schools, starting out in Philadelphia in the late 1980s. At the first school he worked with, the high school graduation rate nearly doubled. But the number of students who got pregnant or were convicted of felonies convinced Weiss that schools alone were not the answer. And his holistic approach was born.

Say Yes to Education's first citywide operation began in 2008 in Syracuse, NY, then added Buffalo a few years later. Say Yes to Education also has smaller chapters in New York City's Harlem, Hartford, Philadelphia, and Cambridge. What's more, Forbes magazine reported in a recent profile of Weiss that Say Yes may add two more cities. And even bigger plans are also afoot.

“Among the long-term goals of Say Yes is to develop a template for communities across the country to adapt and implement—whether in partnership with Say Yes, or on their own—as a pathway for getting graduates of their public schools to, and through college,’’ said Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, the organization’s president. “A critical next step for Say Yes in meeting that goal will be to take our citywide strategy to a community or communities outside New York State, as well as the Northeast.”

So far, more than 5,000 students who participated in Say Yes' program have gone off to college. Other results have been encouraging, as well. New York State education officials have reported higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates in Buffalo, as well as improved achievement on state Regents exams.

Weiss remains Say Yes to Education's most significant funder, but the organization also has attracted support from the Ford, Wallace, and Carnegie foundations.

By many initial measures, then, Say Yes has been a smashing success: It's helped pioneer a new model, won acceptance from a range of stakeholders, and drawn the support of major funders. Still, its reach remains limited in the grand scheme of things. And maybe that's just fine for Weiss and others involved in the organization. But if Say Yes really has found the formula for improving student achievementand also defusing the toxic ed wars—you can only hope that it will eventually take the country by storm. 

One ingredient for major growth still missing is better evaluation of the Say Yes approach. And that's now in the works. As we reported in July, Columbia University researchers, with support from the Wallace Foundation, are looking at how community stakeholders in cities where Say Yes to Education has chapters can collaborate to resolve not only education issues, but related social concerns that hamper student progress. This study will inform funders, educators, and other players regarding whether and to what extent collective impact makes a difference.

Initial findings are expected in late 2015 and could mean big things for Say Yes's future.