Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Closing the College Graduation Gap: Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey Tells Us How It's Done

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Mary Anne Schmitt-Carey believes we can make the college graduation prospects of inner city children every bit as strong as those of their suburban peers. As president of Say Yes to Education, she has the data to back up her claims. Schmitt-Carey recently spoke with us about her model and its astonishing impact in several U.S. cities.

Say Yes topples barriers to college by offering disadvantaged youth comprehensive supports ranging from health care to college scholarships. The results of this work are stunning. In communities where it is active, Say Yes has dramatically narrowed the high school and college graduation gaps between inner-city students and their suburban peers.

Schmitt-Carey emphasizes the need to rally many community partners around common goals. In Syracuse, for example, Say Yes has built a strong a coalition including the school district, mayor, city council, school board, teachers unions, higher education community, business organizations and community-service organizations. Rather than pointing fingers of blame, Schmitt-Carey says, these partners share responsibility for children's long-term success.

Hear highlights from our interview (6 minutes). [A transcript of these highlights appears below]

Or listen to the following excerpts from our full interview:


Public School Insights: Describe what Say Yes To Education is.

Schmitt-Carey: Say Yes to Education is a national nonprofit organization that believes in the capacity of every child, particularly low-income and minority youth, to be able to succeed at graduating from college.

It is also a program that’s been developed over the last 22 years [and] that provides a comprehensive set of supports for students in our cities that map to the four key barriers to post-secondary access for low-income youth. They’re a set of academic barriers, social and emotional, health--both physical and mental health--and financial. The program basically enables young people to either eliminate or minimize each of those barriers so that they are able to really pursue their dreams on a solid foundation of educational attainment.

It started with a vision to take a cohort of students in West Philadelphia--112 students. The Foundation started working with them in 7th grade and promised that, if they persisted, graduated from high school and were admitted to college, the Foundation would fully fund their tuition, fees, and books scholarship.

In addition, [Say Yes founder] George Weiss developed a partnership with the University of Pennsylvania to develop a set of quality academic programs, like after-school programs and summer camps, as well as funding [to provide] more on-site, proactive counseling for students and to facilitate access to quality health services.

Since 1987, [Say Yes to Education] has broadened to include four additional cities: Hartford, CT; Cambridge, MA; Harlem in New York City; and most recently, we have taken the step to take on an entire city--the city of Syracuse in upstate New York.

Public School Insights: Can you give me a sense of what the impact has been of this work?

Schmitt-Carey: Not only can we speak to the fact that in every location where we’ve worked, we have dramatically increased high school and college graduation rates, but we can also speak to the really important and dramatic impact of starting early.

We have results from our cohort that started in 3rd grade and have gone all the way up to and through college. We had just shy of 90% of our students graduating high school, and we had over 60% that achieved a postsecondary degree. Fully half of that 60% received a 4-year bachelor’s degree.

When you look at those results, you are very close to achieving the results of suburban communities. Our hypothesis and strongly held belief is when you start in kindergarten you can absolutely level the playing field.

Public School Insights: Have you measured test results for your cohorts at all, or is this really not as important a goal for you, given that you have set this ambitious goal...to graduate so many students from college?

Schmitt-Carey: We don’t think it's an either/or. We think it's important to look at both, and we think that test score achievement is an interim benchmark to enable students eventually to graduate from college. But the problem that we have seen…You can have many years of incremental improvement in reading and math scores and see no change at the national level in high school and college graduation rates.

I think everybody at this point really needs to acknowledge that and needs to recognize that perhaps the goal that we’ve set may be contributing to seeing the incremental without the ultimate objective and outcome.

Public School Insights: You mentioned earlier that you have moved to a more comprehensive and broader program that takes the entire city of Syracuse. How are you able to mobilize that wide a community?

Schmitt-Carey: The board of Say Yes to Education came to the conclusion that this is something that--if you actually structured it as a public/private partnership--you really could afford to do in an entire city in collaboration with an entire school district. You could actually implement this for an additional cost of about $3500 per student.

So with that in mind, they set out to find the first city. It was Syracuse, New York, that stepped up and was able to put in place a broad-based coalition ...that first of all committed to the concept of the capacity of every student. That coalition included the mayor and every member of the city council. It included every member of the school board, the Syracuse Teachers Association, and we now have the New York State Teachers Association in addition to the local teachers union. In addition, the county administrator came on as a partner, [as did] the higher education community led by Syracuse University and its chancellor Nancy Cantor, and then a broad-based group of both business and community-based organizations.

So at this point in time we have everybody agreeing what the goal is and how it should be measured.

The final piece I would say is that we have the Commissioner for Public Health, the Commissioner for Mental Health and the Commissioners for Social Services working collaboratively with them--and leadership at hospitals, district personnel, and Say Yes personnel to bring this all together in the most powerful way possible

Public School Insights: The audience for this interview is essentially parents, educators, and policymakers, what kind of message do you think this group should hear?

Schmitt-Carey: I think for too long at the local community level there has been far too much finger-pointing, and it's just unproductive. What I am seeing in Syracuse--Rather than people pointing fingers at school leadership and teachers and saying ”You are not doing your job,” what people are starting to say is, “We get it. We can’t succeed with this population of students that have a much larger set of challenges…. We recognize that we can’t succeed if we expect you to do it alone. We have to be part of the solution.”