Saying 'Yes' to inner-city youths



With the decade’s deep cuts in social services and a rise in violent crime and drugs, the late 1980s were a difficult time for many in the nation’s inner cities.

For “the Belmont 112,” the first group of students to participate in the “Say Yes to Education” academic and sponsorship program, it was also a time of great hope and celebration.

The “Say Yes” program, which promised free college tuition to those who could get accepted, was founded in 1987 by George Weiss W’65, a Connecticut money manager and Penn Trustee. It has been implemented in four cities and is currently helping students in five Bronx schools. But it all began here at Penn—and has been changing lives ever since.

Norman A. Newberg, senior fellow in the Graduate School of Education, has run “Say Yes” since its inception. He spoke about the program—and his new book, “The Gift of Education: How a Tuition Guarantee Program Changed the Lives of Inner City Youths”—at the Penn Bookstore on Dec. 12.

When the program was launched, said Newberg, it spent about $1,200 to $1,500 per year on each student while they were in high school and promised to pay the tuition of any child who was accepted to college. But program officials probably weren’t prepared for the challenge that lay ahead: In that first group of 112 students from the Belmont School (located at 42nd and Brown streets) 44 were classified as learning disabled.

“We had a big dilemma,” said Newberg. “We took them all, totally non-selective.”

In his book, Newberg follows the stories of 12 program participants—six who dropped out of high school and six who graduated and went on to a post-secondary education—and also talks about the program’s broader successes and failures.

In the first group of “Say Yes” students an astounding 58 percent graduated high school—a remarkable number considering the classes before and after them graduated at 26 and 28 percent, respectively. Of the 62 kids who received diplomas, 50 had some post-secondary experience, including 20 who received bachelor’s degrees. One student began the program with serious emotional problems that impaired his learning, but ended up graduating, attending Tuskegee University and earning degrees in physics and aeronautical engineering.

Now in its 18th year, the program spends about $5,000 per year on tutoring, a comprehensive summer session, remediation and SAT preparation for each child. The program has also expanded its reach to work with children from kindergarten through high school. “There’s something about having a real connection with young people and caring about their development and wanting to see how the full-length picture develops,” said Newberg. “We pay a lot of attention to [the] building of community in an area that is very fractured.”

Teachers in the program also work with parents who may have distrusted schools in the past, which, says Newberg, “goes a long way to change the culture of the community.”

Newberg praised Penn doctoral students and professionals who have made the program a success, saying: “We have got to pay for education. … Every child should have high quality teachers every year. The cost of not doing it is a large numbers of dropouts.”

Originally published on January 12, 2006