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“Say Yes to Education” Helps Harlem Youngsters Graduate HS & Pays for College Too
By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey
Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey

When Hartford money manager George Weiss threw out his signature football to a group of 400 Harlem kindergartners and their parents two years ago, he was executing far more than an athletic maneuver. Weiss, a well-known philanthropist who has given millions of dollars to inner city families since his “Say Yes to Education” program began in Philadelphia in 1987, was offering the gift of hope to a new cohort of “Say Yes” students. Through a planned $50 million initiative in five Harlem elementary schools (P.S. 161, 180, 57, 83, and 182), “Say Yes” will offer K-12 academic and social support for these lucky 400 youngsters, with guaranteed payment of full tuition to the college of their choice if they graduate from high school.

“When Mr. Weiss made his announcement, I had to translate for some of the non-English speaking parents,” said Carmen Vega-Rivera, Director of the NYC Chapter of “Say Yes.” “Then there was complete chaos in the room. Jaws dropped, tears were rolling. The emotions were wild. One father picked up his child and cried, ‘We’re going to college!’”

Children in the program
Children in the program

Two years later, the enthusiasm is just as palpable. The now-second grade children receive a rich infusion of academic support, with a dedicated program manager and reading specialist in each of the five “Say Yes” schools who make sure that each child has his or her own IEP (Individualized Education Program) and that no one falls between the cracks. “Say Yes” provides three hours of after-school homework help and enrichment each weekday, social work assistance for parents and families, physical and mental health services, and financial back-up where needed (even parents can receive needed vocational school or college tuition once they’re in the “Say Yes” family.) A partnership with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen offers families much-needed pro bono legal assistance in areas of immigration, child support, special education, housing, and more. And a six week summer school program, just rolled out this year, offers youngsters the opportunity to keep up with their literacy and math skills during the long summer hiatus. “It’s not rocket science,” explains Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey, who just assumed presidency of the nonprofit “Say Yes to Education” in April. “We looked at the core challenges for enabling inner city high poverty youth to succeed to what’s been defined as middle class standards of achievement…It takes a much greater investment in academic and non-academic support services, and a lot more time.”

The germ of the idea for “Say Yes” came to Weiss when he was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania and his fraternity hosted a Christmas party for 12 inner city adolescents. In his typical hands-on fashion, Weiss stayed in touch with each of them; when he returned for Penn’s Homecoming weekend seven years later, he took them out to lunch and was heartened to learn that every single youth had graduated from high school. The reason: Weiss had cared so much about them that they could not let him down. When Weiss made his fortune in the investment arena, he returned to Philadelphia in 1987 and financed his first cohort of “Say Yes” students at the Belmont Elementary School, later expanding to Hartford (CT), Cambridge (MA) and now New York City.  

George Weiss presides over his “Say Yes” family (there are now 768 “Say Yes” children; the oldest of them is 31 years old) like a proud and often doting father. “We now have a ‘Say Yes’ posse,” relates Weiss with obvious pride and joy at the accomplishments of his oldest graduates. “They rally around each other. But when problems get too serious, they call me,” he adds, admitting to taking phone calls from his “Say Yes” charges at odd hours of the night. From his midtown Manhattan office, Weiss recounts a litany of almost unbelievable stories: Jarmaine is now an aerospace engineer for NASA, and Laureine (not her real name), a foster child who had been abused, now has her own baby and is purchasing her own home. “I’m getting emotional,” says Weiss, who clearly has invested more than money in this incredible Cinderella story that’s happening in four cities and shows no sign of losing momentum.

Statistically as well as anecdotally, “Say Yes” kids are beating the odds and achieving at higher rates than their inner city peers. In Cambridge, Hartford, and Philadelphia, high school graduation rates for “Say Yes” students hovered around 75 percent, as compared to national averages that are closer to 50 percent. While there’s been no systematic, longitudinal study of “Say Yes,” Schmitt-Carey is seeking foundation support to do just that, in addition to implementing a series of targeted objectives. “There was a lack of accountability and controls in the early years of ‘Say Yes to Education.’ We’ve since learned lessons around the need for tough love, setting clear expectations and defining boundaries,” notes Schmitt-Carey, who came to “Say Yes” from New American Schools (NAS) where she championed the need for data-driven decision-making in public school reform. Following a six month, external study of “Say Yes to Education,” she’s ready to move ahead in instituting a set of more stringent policies “in the spirit of wanting to improve and enhance the program, not in a way that’s punitive or looking to kick people out of the program.”

With vibrant programs in Philadelphia, Hartford, and Cambridge and five classes of NYC eight year olds just beginning their journey to college and beyond, “Say Yes to Education” has by anyone’s standards gone above and beyond the definition of philanthropy. Yet, George Weiss will be the first to tell you that he hasn’t done enough: “There are so many kids out there who still need our help,” he says, shaking his head despondently. You can be sure that, with so much to be proud of, George Weiss is already hard at work identifying new children on whom to bestow his many gifts.#

Next month’s Education Update will take an up-close look at how one school in Harlem is making dreams come true for “Say Yes” children and their families.



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