This week on the Campbell Conversations I'm talking with Pat Driscoll, the operations director for Syracuse’s Say Yes to Education Program. Three years ago, Say Yes was rolled out with great expectations--words like “transformative” were used to describe the hoped-for impact of this program that blends an extensive in-class and extra-curricular support network with the ultimate promise of free college tuition. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner, for example, appears to have hung her hat--and perhaps her re-election--on this program.
The program has had past success elsewhere in targeting smaller numbers of children within a school, but it’s never been applied to an entire school district. I was curious to know whether it's realizing its promise, three years on. The question is particularly timely, as the program is slated to be financed solely by the city in 2013, and it would then account for ten percent of the entire school budget. Given the layoffs we've already seen in the school district, it's likely that continuing this program will mean fewer traditional teacher lines. I explore that question with Pat, and we also discuss just what makes the program so different from previous efforts to overcome the educational challenges that disadvantaged students face.
This interview left me thinking about those challenges--and just how steep they are for the children growing up in poor neighborhoods. Study after study has documented the rise in inequality over the past 30 years, and the backpedaling in real terms for those living in the bottom half of the income distribution. Housing patterns have also become more segregated during the same time period. All of this further concentrates educational problems in certain school districts and certain schools. I wonder whether any program rooted in the educational system, however broadly framed, can effectively address the challenges. If the program ultimately fails to demonstrate significant measurable improvement, it may be more a testament to the difficulty of the task than a breakdown in design and implementation.