Say Yes Buffalo announced Thursday its first-ever funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The powerhouse foundation will invest $2.9 million over the next 22 months for the newly established Buffalo College Success Network.
The network is a partnership between Say Yes Buffalo, Buffalo Public Schools and the five local colleges and universities that receive the most Say Yes scholars: Buffalo State College, Medaille College, SUNY Erie, The University at Buffalo and Villa Maria College.
David Rust, executive director of Say Yes Buffalo, said the partners realized that, while more Buffalo students are going to college as a result of Say Yes’ launch in the city in 2012, they aren’t necessarily completing it.
“This is the first Say Yes city that has extended these supports into the institutes of higher education. It was something I think we needed to do [and] something we didn’t anticipate initially,” Rust said.
“We have found that just because a kid graduates high school doesn’t mean that problems go away.”
Buffalo State College President Dr. Katherine Conway-Turner agreed.
“The Say Yes scholarship certainly allows students the hope of coming to college, but we understand, clearly, that starting and completing are two different things,” Dr. Conway-Turner told WBFO.
Rust said the Gates Foundation started to look for communities in which to invest in P-16 education about two years ago. P-16 refers to a continuum of public education from preschool to postsecondary, including two- and four-year degrees. After a site visit to Buffalo in June 2018, the foundation invited Say Yes Buffalo and its partners to apply.
Buffalo is one of five cities across the country where Gates will invest over the next two years. The other recipient cities are Chattanooga, Tennessee; Tacoma, Washington; Dallas, Texas; and the rural location is the Rio Grande Valley.
The $2.9 million Buffalo investment will be shared among Say Yes, Buffalo Public Schools and the five institutes of higher education. It will fund four main strategies to boost college success for Say Yes scholars. First, near-peer mentors—recent high school graduates and successful college students—will counsel high school students in Buffalo’s public schools.
Dr. Conway-Tuner said the young mentors will help better prepare high school students for the transition to college.
“Even though adult advisors and counselors are very committed to our students, there’s nothing like having someone very near your age—just a little bit older who’s had the same lived experience—to talk from a sense of reality about how they made that transition,” she said.
The grant will also fund the implementation of a mandatory college transition curriculum for high school students and the establishment of on-campus mental health clinics. The clinics will be operated by licensed clinicians, and they are envisioned to help students cope with social, emotional or traumatic challenges that can be a barrier to college success.
Additionally, the colleges will hire 11 new college success counselors to work one-on-one with Say Yes scholars on academic and administrative challenges.
“So, those conversations with financial aid, or those conversations with student accounts, or whatever the case may be,” said Michelle Sawyers, director of Say Yes to Education at Medaille College. “We intend to help facilitate those conversations because the goal is to not only produce scholars. We want to produce that next generation [who] when they leave, they will be able to navigate the larger world.”
Despite this high-profile investment from an esteemed foundation, Rust and other education leaders WBFO spoke to said Buffalo still has work to do. The public school district’s high school graduation rate is 63 percent, according to the most recent state data for 2018, or 64 percent according to district data. That’s an improvement from 49 percent in 2012, the year Say Yes was launched, but graduation rates are still lower today for minority students.
In 2018, the high school graduation rate for African-American students was 60 percent—also according to state data—and 50 percent for Hispanic or Latinos. The graduation rate of white students was 75 percent.
Medaille College President Dr. Kenneth Macur said we won’t know the full impact of Say Yes’ success for another 12 years—long enough for the first kindergartener who started school with Say Yes in action to graduate high school, and then another six years to calculate the six-year graduation rate. The Gates Foundation grant, he said, is helping lay the groundwork for a long-term solution.
“While the best time to plant that tree is 20 years ago, the next best time is today,” Dr. Macur said.
“Yes, some of these things are going to take a while before we realize the full impact,” said Dr. Matthew Giordano, president of Villa Maria College. “But the fact that these conversations are happening and there’s this collective will right now—the current students are going to see some of these benefits too.”
Rust said Say Yes is about providing college access and choice in later professional careers to every child in Buffalo.
“The region is calling for 165,000 open jobs in the next decade, two-thirds requiring a post-secondary credential. We’re not going to have that many people move here,” he said. “Our opportunity is here—right here—in the City of Buffalo. Every kid in this city has potential. Not everyone has been given the same opportunity.”