After meeting its initial goal of providing Guilford County public-school seniors with opportunities for last-dollar tuition scholarships, Say Yes to Education now seeks to launch special volunteer-taskforces to identify what pulls students off the pathway to higher education.

At a May 26 informational meeting at the Central Library in Greensboro, Say Yes Executive Director Mary Vigue’s eagerness was palpable.

“We’re excited we’re moving beyond scholarships here in Guilford,” Vigue said. “We’re moving past them, into the next phase.”

In the conference room at the Central Library, Vigue energized a room of about 30 young-to-middle-aged professionals in suits and medical uniforms, a rather quiet but attentive audience other than polite laughs at some technological gaffes and Vigue’s good humor at diffusing an awkward slideshow malfunction.

“The show must go on,” she said, smiling, after the projector went blank for a second time.

It was the first of four info sessions inviting community members to join task forces supporting Say Yes to Education, a national education nonprofit based in New York, which launched a community-wide program in Guilford County in September 2015 to much fanfare, making last-dollar tuition scholarships available to all eligible Guilford County public high-school graduates starting with the class of 2016.

Now heading into its second year, Say Yes is recruiting community volunteers to analyze into Guilford County Schools’ data and analysis — with a specific focus on the achievement gap — in order to find solutions for students in specific areas where students are falling off.

“I think the task forces are going to be instrumental,” Vigue said in an interview. “We have a very impatient and excited community.”

The fall launch generated considerable buzz not only because of the scholarships, but the rarity of being selected: Out of more than two dozen areas considered, Say Yes selected Guilford County to be its third community-wide program alongside Syracuse and Buffalo, NY.

Since then, the local iteration of the organization has grown, adding Greensboro’s former assistant city manager Vigue in November and bringing on more staff for scholarship support in February.

At the meeting, Vigue used a slide to illustrate Say Yes’ three-step theory of change for system-wide post-secondary completion, with scholarships as the first step. Establishing a collaborative governance model through work groups, the task forces and an operating committee is the second, in order to strategically analyze the data to provide comprehensive supports, the final step.

The operating committee, with about 20 representatives from the cities of High Point and Greensboro, the county, the school system, community foundations, parents, teachers and principals sits at the hub of this collaborative governance model.

“This [model] is really key to the work that goes on in Guilford County,” Vigue said. “It’s about, how do we take an entire community and bring it together? […] It takes all of us to get the information out there, to work together, and make this successful long-term.”

The three task forces in need of volunteers will focus on identified problem-areas where students are suffering: targeted issues found in early elementary, AP and ACT performance, and engaging families and schools to cultivate excitement and planning for college and a future career.

Guilford County boasts a rising graduation rate — around a 10 percent increase in the past decade — but according to stats from NC School Report Card, white and economically advantaged students consistently outperform students in poverty and students of color in grades 3 to 8 on end-of-grade testing and in high school graduation rates. Sixty-seven percent of Guilford County students live at or below the poverty line. According to Vigue, that’s where the task forces come in.

If it all sounds vague, it’s because these task forces are still hypothetical.

“We know that this is not an easy process,” Vigue said. “In the front end, it’s going to be a little more intense as they figure out what they’re going to look at, what data they’d like in their hands.”

That data will come from much of what’s currently available from the county school-system and research previously conducted for Say Yes by Schoolhouse Partners, an independent publishing and service company specializing in education. Volunteers will form hypotheses and test them, and then make formal recommendations to the operating committee.

Test scores could be one source of data for task forces, Vigue said.

“We really need to look at testing instruments,” she said. “Is it just the testing instruments themselves? It could be things like, are our students hungry? Are they homeless? What does that data tell us?”

Attendees nodded and murmured in assent.

Vigue also stressed throughout the presentation that the implicit bias training will be a crucial piece of the task forces working well from the same starting point.

“We all need to understand that race underlines all of this,” she said. Volunteers from diverse, non-education backgrounds are welcomed.

“We really want them to bring their experiences, their questions, their view of the world,” Vigue said. “We need a lot of parents on these task forces, not just people in higher ed.”

Volunteers must commit to a two-day anti-racism training within their first six months, monthly task force meetings, and pledge to stay for at least a year.

Several private donors initially committed the needed funding to launch the chapter — around $28 million of a $70 million goal for perpetuity, according to Vigue.

Say Yes spokesperson Donnie Turlington said in an interview that the local funds raised came from many of the same pockets as the $30 million of private funding for the Tanger Center for the Performing Arts just a year before.

“When you talk about heavy hitters in our community that can fund such things, there’s a lot overlap,” he said.

The national Say Yes organization met them with $15 million of seed money to help the startup.

Chapters nestled in other areas of the country are seeing success not just with Say Yes’ scholarships but with wrap-around services starting in kindergarten, Turlington said.

“Say Yes has been in Harlem for 12 years,” he said. “There’s a zero-percent dropout rate and zero-percent teen pregnancy rate, because those students have known since kindergarten that there was going to be this thing called Say Yes that was going to be walking with them every step of the way. That small sample size, it’s been promising to see.

“Good grief,” he added, “what could you do once every kid knows there’s this organization that’s going to be there?”

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