A deal these second-graders couldn't refuse

Decade-old promise of free tuition yields fruit as students stick with school and graduate

Maria Pereira will never forget the sultry June evening when she and the parents of 69 second-graders were hurriedly summoned to school for a "mysterious" announcement.

As they entered Harrington Elementary's auditorium in Cambridge, Mass., questions buzzed: Was the president visiting? The school shutting down?

The answer, Ms. Pereira says, still surprises her 10 years later.

Say Yes to Education, an intervention program for inner-city kids considered at risk for dropping out, struck a deal: It would pay for the entire second-grade class to attend college, provided its members graduated from high school and got in.

"It still seems too good to be true. You don't find many people like that willing to donate money to help these kids," Pereira says, recalling the elation that swept over the auditorium. "Parents were crying, hugging."

Now most of those students, like Pereira's son Michael, are fulfilling the terms of the deal. As they received diplomas this month (many from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School), they were looking ahead to the fall. Some will be the first in their families to attend college - at such schools as Northeastern University in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania, and Bard College in New York State. What played a large role in getting them to set their sights high was a program that stuck with them as they negotiated the often troubled waters of urban schooling.

Say Yes was the brainchild of George Weiss, a Hartford, Conn., money manager, and his wife, Diane, who founded the program in 1987. The program covers tuition and fees for community and four-year colleges. Students often receive aid from the colleges for room and board.

Say Yes has grown to include more than 300 students in four chapters. A fifth chapter is launching this fall in Philadelphia for a group of preschoolers. Over the past decade, at least a dozen similar programs - including New York-based "I Have a Dream" and Tobin Scholars in Boston - have surfaced.

To help kids along the way, Say Yes partners with local universities to provide tutoring, counseling, SAT prep, and other support. Mr. Weiss stays in close touch with students, and recently attended the 10-year anniversary of the offer to hand out awards.

The challenges of finishing school can be enormous for low-income children. The first class to be offered scholarships - 112 fifth-graders from Belmont Elementary School in Philadelphia - was to finish college in 1997. Of the group, only 69 completed high school, and 66 went on to post-secondary school; 18 have bachelor's degrees.

To Jonathan Ciccarelli, a Harrington school alumnus who will attend Bard College this fall, the long-ago promise in second grade propelled him forward. "It's given me a reason to do well in school," he says. In his junior year, Jonathan, who will be the first in his immediate family to attend college, carried a heavy courseload of advanced-placement classes along with theater and dance, and was admitted to the National Honor Society.

According to the US Department of Education, students whose family incomes fall in the bottom 20 percent are five times more likely than wealthier peers to drop out of high school. Getting to graduation day, therefore, can be anything but a straightforward proposition.

"Some kids [did] extremely well one year, and then they'd go into a tailspin," says Anne Larkin, director of Say Yes and a professor at Lesley University School of Education, which partners with Say Yes. She says many of the students are first-generation Americans or immigrants who had to learn English.

Of the 69 selected to receive free tuition, 50 are graduating this year. Forty-five will start college in the fall, with the remaining students either postponing a start date or considering options like the military. Coordinators of the program are continuing to work with the remaining students to help them complete their requirements. Those who won't finish this year can still receive college tuition if they complete high school by July 2003.

Parents, including Pereira, concede that paying for tuition at most colleges would be an enormous struggle without aid. And the chapter's academic mentoring has been crucial to prevent many students from slipping.

"There are quite a few who say, 'Forget it - I'm not going to college,' " says Jose Ribeiro, Say Yes project coordinator. Some have run afoul of the law, he adds, or feel that earning $12 an hour beats solving algebra problems. Others plan to take time off before college. (In addition, 50 percent of the Cambridge chapter was diagnosed with learning disorders.)

But despite seemingly insurmountable challenges at times, Ribeiro points to many kids who intended to drop out, but then overcame their setbacks. "The ones who really were almost going down the drain - determined to fight the gift they were given - in the last year or two, they just woke up," he says.

In eighth and ninth grade, Michael was one who felt frustrated with state tests and schoolwork, and wanted nothing to do with college. "I was getting aggravated with the work ... and everyone telling me what to do," he says. "I had a few talks with Mr. Ribeiro and he changed my mind. He ... said I had potential. This year ... I've gotten honor roll."

Michael plans to attend St. Joseph's College in Maine. What especially helped him, he says, was the tutoring Say Yes provided. On average, the program spends about $500 per child per year.

The support comes in a variety of ways. When Stella Poco's friends were using drugs, the program linked her with a counselor. When Stella was failing math, a private tutor helped her pass. "I don't know if I still would have gotten my act together," she says.

Ribeiro and Larkin plan to talk regularly with those who move on to college and offer academic or emotional support to help them graduate. "Many kids say, 'I'm not college material,' and I tell them, 'What's college material?' I was the first one in my family to go to college. My mother had third-grade education and my father had fourth-grade education. I have two bachelor's, two master's and a Ph.D."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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