The inspiration for the Say Yes to Education, Inc. program came when its founder, George Weiss, was a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania and his fraternity hosted a Christmas party for 12 inner-city children. Nineteen years old at the time, Mr. Weiss struck up a friendship with the 12-year-olds, playing basketball and pool with them and listening to stories about their hardscrabble lives. Moved by their courage and resilience, he stayed in touch with all of them.
When he returned to Penn seven years later for homecoming, he finally had enough money to take them out to lunch. At the restaurant, he learned that all 12 had graduated from high school. One of the young men told him, “We could not have dropped out and looked you straight in the eye.” Inspired by these words, Mr. Weiss made a promise to himself that day to contribute to making a difference in the lives of children facing overwhelming obstacles.
After building a successful career, Mr. Weiss fulfilled his promise. The Say Yes to Education program was created in 1987 when he promised 112 economically disadvantaged sixth-graders from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods that if they could make it through high school, he would pay for their college education.
For its first two decades, Say Yes worked with cohorts of children, all from low-income and other backgrounds historically underrepresented on the nation’s college and university campuses. The chapters ranged in size from about 100 to 300, in cities and states where Mr. Weiss had a personal connection.
These included Philadelphia (Mr. Weiss is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania); Cambridge, Mass. (he was raised outside of Boston); Hartford, Conn. (the original site of his money management business, and where he still maintains offices) and Harlem in New York City (Mr. Weiss’s firm, Weiss Multi-Strategies, has offices in Manhattan.)
In each of the original Say Yes cohort chapters, students graduated high school — and college — at rates exceeding those of students from similar backgrounds in the public school district as a whole.
Encouraged by these results but seeking ways to take the Say Yes idea to scale, the Say Yes board, led by Mr. Weiss as its chairman, hired Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey as the organization’s president in 2006. A veteran of the school reform movement who worked in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Bill Clinton, Ms. Schmitt-Carey led the process of developing ways to extend Say Yes services and scholarships across an entire community. She soon hired Gene Chasin, a former classroom teacher, principal and superintendent — and the former CEO of one of the largest school reform efforts in the country — to be Say Yes’ chief operating officer.
The first Say Yes city-wide chapter was piloted in Syracuse, beginning in 2008. The second followed four years later, in Buffalo, New York’s second largest city. During the 2014-15 school year, Say Yes services were available to nearly 65,000 children. More than 5,000 students have gone off to college with the support of Say Yes, most since 2013.
Say Yes announced its third community chapter on Sept. 17, 2015, in Guilford County, North Carolina, which includes the cities of Greensboro and High Point and serves 72,000 students in the county school district. It is a district larger than those in Atlanta, Boston, San Francisco and Seattle. The organization seeks to select and launch its fourth community chapter in 2016.With the addition of Guilford County, Say Yes scholarships and supports will soon be available to nearly 140,000 public school students. Mr. Weiss remains the organization’s chairman; Ms. Schmitt-Carey, its president, and Mr. Chasin, its chief operating officer.
Say Yes Syracuse
In January 2011, SRC, Inc. joined other companies and announced a $5 million commitment to the “Say Yes to Education Scholarships” designed for the Syracuse City School District (SCSD). Contributions to the Say Yes to Education Syracuse Fund have matched the SRC contribution dollar-for-dollar for a total of $10 million. The list of donors committed to a six figures donations to Say Yes Syracuse include The Central New York Community Foundation , Raymour & Flanigan, M&T Bank, O’Brien & Gere, Lockheed Martin, Say Yes to Education Foundation, American Institutes for Research, Wegman’s, Syracuse University, Central New York Community Foundation, Syracuse Research Corporation, Ford Foundation, JP Morgan, Chase Bank, Robert Pomfrey, Winnick Family Foundation, First Niagara Bank, Bowers and Company and local real estate developer Bob Congel. Smaller donors include Citizen’s and Key Bank, Bank of America, Rent-A-Car, Hayner Hoyt Corporation, Syracuse Accounting firm Testone, Marshall and Discenza, LLP, Gilbane Building Company and other public and private sources.
In February 2012, Xerox Corporation supported Say Yes Syracuse by giving a Syracuse area employee a fully-paid 6-month leave of absence to work for Say Yes to Education in Syracuse. WCNY Jim Reith interviewed Xerox employee Debby Rosenbaum and at the time the director of development for Syracuse University’s Say Yes to Education program, Lisa R. Moore. (Click here to watch the video aired November 20th, 2012).
In winter 2013 semester, Say Yes initiated a new program named Collegiate Saturdays delivering a comprehensive college access course. The initiative was a collaboration between Say Yes Collegiate Preparatory Academy (SYCPA), 100 Black Men of Syracuse and Syracuse University. The four-hour course offered three tracks; SAT prep, Regents exam prep and AP exam prep. Today the initiative continues to offer SAT prep courses.