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“Say Yes to Education” Thrives in P.S. 57

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

The front door of P.S. 57 on 115th Street is entirely obscured by steel girders these days, but the real support is going on inside this East Harlem building, where “Say Yes to Education”, the brainchild of hedge fund guru George Weiss, has promised one lucky class of students a free college education if they graduate from high school. Past the security guard and down a long corridor, the “Say Yes” headquarters—housing a small administrative space, a reading specialist’s office, and a diminutive classroom for homework help—stands like a beacon of hope, inviting the 50-plus children (most of them now second graders since they were selected into the program as kindergarteners in 2004), to share in a culture of academic advancement and success.

 “We have a school with kids who come from broken homes, broken families, and broken dreams,” explains P.S. 57’s principal, Israel Soto, whose consistency (eight years at the helm) and strong leadership helped his school win the opportunity to house a “Say Yes” classroom. (There are four others in Harlem, as well as longstanding “Say Yes” programs in Philadelphia, Hartford, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.) “Selling the dream of excellence is a very hard sell in Harlem, where kids don’t get enough opportunity and role modeling. Here at P.S. 57, we’ve got to cultivate a culture where they can see success,” adds Soto.

Building that culture begins with a strong staffing foundation that includes a program manager, program assistant, and reading specialist (who does either push-in or pull-out remediation where needed) at every school, as well as two education managers who oversee all five “Say Yes” classrooms. Instruction goals for the children are intensely personalized: “We’re doing lots of assessments,” states Carmen Vega-Rivera, Director of the NYC chapter of “Say Yes.” “One of our goals is to have an individual plan for every child…We’d like to be able to say for every child, ‘What’s our plan for little Emily—cognitively, socially and emotionally?’”

The story of Justin (not his real name) provides a graphic illustration of how such a personalized approach can change the course of a child’s life. Born with a genetic disorder that impaired the nerve endings in his feet, Justin couldn’t dress himself and was falling down in school. Despite an IEP that required occupational and physical therapy, the school was unable to provide enough hours of care to correct Justin’s problems. Through persistent intervention, “Say Yes” got him admitted to Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Westchester, where he’s now receiving five days per week of intensive OT/PT along with full time schooling on-site for one year, all reimbursed by “Say Yes”. “Every child is special here,” explains program manager Marta Morales, wiping tears from her eyes as she recounts Justin’s story. “He had slipped through the cracks. His teachers were giving up on him. We knew that he needed a special setting….Justin is ecstatic now.”

To meet the arduous “Say Yes” academic and social goals requires a staff that doesn’t quit at 3 PM. “Say Yes” kids are expected to attend an after school enrichment program (it’s not mandatory but they have nearly perfect attendance), which includes an hour of homework help and an hour of cultural enrichment during which children select ten week cycles of art, music or dance that take place in P.S. 57’s classrooms. On one wintry afternoon, Tanya Torres, an exhibited artist, is teaching a group of youngsters how to make linoleum cut prints, first asking them to describe and critique Rafael Tufino’s evocative print, “Sugar Cane Cutters.” “The artist wanted to show how tough that job was for Puerto Rican men and women,” explains Torres. Down the hall, ten boys are belting out “Feliz Navidad” to the accompaniment of wood blocks and rhythm instruments. An Afro-Caribbean dance class and an Aztec dance class, both punctuated by a pulsing drum beat, are preparing students on stage for an upcoming holiday show.

It takes a village to raise a family, and “Say Yes” takes that credo to heart. According the Vega-Rivera, “We sit down with the family and discuss the needs of parents and siblings, so that all voices and parties are at the table.” For social worker Paola Veras, this can mean connecting parents with literacy programs or a vast array of higher learning opportunities, from vocational education to a GED or even a CUNY degree, all paid for, once again, by the good graces of “Say Yes.” “The key is that someone is going to hold their hand and bring them to something of interest,” notes Veras. Siblings are encouraged to help out in “Say Yes” classrooms or find community service opportunities to serve as role models for others. Once a week, a Bingham-McCutchen lawyer is on-site, pro bono, to “do everything except custody battles…that includes things like immigration, quality of life, criminal defense and home default,” says Veras. In a recent case, Bingham lawyer Jaime Fried Dockray was able to help a parent whose landlord was insisting she owed him a bogus rent payment of $6000. “[The client] almost couldn’t believe that this problem that had nearly destroyed her life for six weeks was gone in just one afternoon,” says Dockray.

Overseeing the extended “Say Yes” family will be no small logistical feat in the coming years. Middle school will present its share of challenges, as kids scatter into other schools; already 11 children from the original kindergarten class have moved to other schools, states or countries. But the guarantee of a paid college education will follow all of the original “Say Yes” children wherever they go: “That’s the magic of it,” extols Vega-Rivera. “Once you’re identified as a ‘Say Yes’ child, you’re always a ‘Say Yes’ child. The promise and the dream continue.” #



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