Q&A: David Rust of ‘Say Yes To Education’

Buffalo schools have a new superintendent, a new School Board president and a $190-an-hour consultant. But Say Yes to Education may hold the key to turning around the city’s troubled school district.

David Rust is executive director of the non-profit organization, which will begin providing full tuition scholarships to all graduates of Buffalo public and charter schools beginning next year. Those scholarships, thus far underwritten largely by two local foundations, provide Say Yes leverage in pushing for reform of the moribund school system. Also on the agenda: providing wall-to-wall services for students and their families and reforming educational practices.

Rust, 33,  joined Say Yes in July after serving as deputy commissioner of Youth Services for the Erie County Department of Social Services and, before that, as director of the Erie County Youth Bureau. He earned an undergraduate degree in journalism and a masters in business administration from St. Bonaventure University.

Investigative Post Editor Jim Heaney interviewed Rust on Oct. 2. A 4 minute, 11 second video clip including interview highlights is posted above. The full 21-minute interview is posted deeper in the post.

The transcript below has been edited lightly for clarity.


Heaney: Tell us a little bit about Say Yes.

Rust: It was founded in 1987 by a philanthropist named George Weiss. George attended the University of Pennsylvania on a full tuition scholarship, grew up in poverty. He did really well there and higher education and the ability to for him to access free college tuition really changed his life.

Part of his fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania was service-oriented, very community based. While there, he worked with young men – inner city Philadelphia students – mentoring, tutoring, acting as a big brother to these children along the way. Upon graduating, he went back to visit his fraternity and met with the young men and they had all graduated high school and gone on to college.  He felt very blessed and decided if he ever had the ability to give back to public education and change young men and young women’s lives he would do so. So he’s done well in life and founded Say Yes Education in 1987.

Originally founded as a cohort model, working with groups between 100 and 500 students in four cities across the northeast. Tremendous outcomes on those models and I can touch briefly on those.

Heaney: What are the measurements of projects and success?

Rust: The national high school graduation rate is about 69 percent. But for urban cities it hovers in the mid-50s. You know the number here – 51 percent currently for the Buffalo public school system. What they have found in their cohort model is tremendous success working with the children. Overall, over 75 percent high school graduation rate, over 50 percent college or post-secondary completion rate.

They also found that the earlier they started, the better off the children performed. So in the chapters where they started services in third grade, the high school graduation rate spiked to 90 percent. The college post-secondary completion was 72 percent, blowing urban education numbers out of the water.

Heaney: In a nutshell, what’s in the secret sauce? What is Say Yes doing that drives that type of change?

Rust: The thing we get the most publicity for is the scholarship. The scholarship is really the lever, the gas in the engine that allows us to drive the work we do.

Heaney: And the other work being?

Rust: Services based in schools and school district reform. But the scholarship opens the door to have those opportunities.

Heaney: It’s kind of that carrot that’s out there.

Rust: Absolutely, but at this point in time, children are kind of climbing a mountain to get to that carrot at the end. The services that we do with all our partners in the City of Buffalo, whether it be school districts, Erie County, Buffalo, unions, higher ed, philanthropy, we look to pave the path together so that more and more children have access to the scholarship at the end of the road.

Heaney: You’ve been in Syracuse for how long?

Rust: Four years.

Heaney: So Buffalo’s the second city. Why Buffalo?

Rust: Say Yes RFPed this a year ago, so there was a national competition to see who would be fortunate enough to have Say Yes to Education come to their city.

Heaney: How many competitors?

Rust:  Over 15 applicants, including large metro areas, and Buffalo won that round. So Buffalo came to Say Yes, the announcement was made in December 2011.

 I do believe that Buffalo, despite the struggles, is a community rich with resources for young people.

Heaney: What was it about Buffalo that won the competition?

Rust: Two things: a tremendous application and the fundraising work done by the Oishei Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo. They came to the table with $15 million in commitments to fund the scholarship piece. I don’t think Say Yes expected that, and they did not get that from big urban populations, including Miami, Denver, Raleigh- Durham – districts and cities that do have tremendous financial resources.

Buffalo really stepped up and that was Buffalo private money that stepped up. That was all locally raised through businesses, through the foundations, through local individual giving. Everybody’s skin is in this game. This is the one thing we need to work. And we need it to be the priority for the foreseeable future here in the City of Buffalo.

Heaney: You’ve been on the job for how long?

Rust: Since July.

Heaney: You’re previously former deputy for youth services for Erie County so you know the landscape. Buffalo schools are widely perceived as being a disaster – poor attendance, bad drop-out rates, poor graduation rates, all sorts of labor-management strife, dysfunction on the school board –it’s just a mess. That’s my take anyway, and I think the conventional wisdom. Looking what you’re stepping into, what are the big assets you have to work with and what are the biggest obstacles you see to make this thing work?

Rust: I’ll start with the assets. I do believe that Buffalo, despite the struggles, is a community rich with resources for young people. Tremendously caring people, quality programs, after-school programs, summer enrichment – we have a variety of resources for children and Say Yes brings a theory of change to the model that calls for taking strengths in a system, taking a framework and bringing it systemwide for full collaboration.

It starts with a government structure. People often ask ‘who’s in charge? Who owns this?’

It’s the community at large and how we govern this is from high-level representation across our community. Our operating committee, where we set our policy and really get our work done and meets biweekly, consists of leadership from the Buffalo Public Schools with Doctor Brown, representatives from both unions with Phil Rumore and Crystal Barton, representatives of higher education, Dr. Aaron Podeleski, representing Buff State on behalf of SUNY and CUNY, Dr. Rick Jersek representing Medaille and the private commitment for the scholarship, high level representation from Erie County and the City of Buffalo, representatives from the Oishei Foundation and Community Foundation in Blythe Merrill and Clotilde Bode Dedecker, and Sam Radford representing the district parents. And that is how we govern.

Heaney: So these folks meet every week? Is it majority rule? Because nothing is going to happen without the school district’s approval.

Rust: We’re here to be friends with the school district and everyone in that room. The power of the scholarship is tremendous. But the other piece – when I talked about the assets – why I believe this is going to work, and it’s been proven to work everywhere else Say Yes has been to, is how we look at services and resources we can bring to the district.

It will take us some time to fix it and give the children the opportunity they deserve.

Heaney: What are the biggest land mines that you’ve got to diffuse.

Rust: That’s a fair question. There will be a series of reports out later this year that take a look at an array of issues around the community. The reports will touch on curriculum and instruction in the district, special education. IT, HR, finances of all the school districts. But it will also look at the county and city level for services provided to youth, whether that’s through the Department of Social Services, mental health, probation. It takes a look at the services and the way the dollars are allocated. I think our challenge will be beginning to move collectively to fund all the key priority issues to everyone because the impact is on everyone.

Heaney: So the challenge is going to be getting everybody on the same page?

Rust: Yes.

Heaney: What do you do about the large issue that nobody really has control over and that’s pervasive poverty and the impact it has on parents and kids. You can’t legislate that, you can mitigate it; how do you get at that particular issue?

Rust: Again, it affects everybody at the table – the poverty needs that we see in this community. We’re very family-based in the work we do. First of all, the proverbial Rome wasn’t built in a day. You know this takes time. And the school district and the city deteriorated over time. It will take us some time to fix it and give the children the opportunity they deserve. But about the poverty, one of the key things we bring to the table is taking a look at social, emotional, and health needs in the child and the family. So one of our core areas is placing a site facilitator based in each school.

Heaney: What does the facilitator do?

Rust: We have a student monitoring system, and it’s a holistic survey, a comprehensive survey of student, teacher, parent/guardian. It takes into effect that child’s grades, discipline, their attendance in the school.

 Heaney: This is every kid in the school?

Rust: That’s going to tell us where every child stands. Are they on track to thrive? Are they on track to graduate? Are they not on track to thrive?

Heaney: Is anything done like this now?

Rust: No. It’s a first of its kind type system but that gives us a lot of interventions to put in place, backed up by the data. So our site facilitators will look at the needs of that child and family. They have the ability to go into the home and work with families. And they’ll put interventions in place that are recommended by our system. And we’ll measure the data and the impact on the road.

For some families, that calls for certain types of needs. For other kids, they just need a quality after-school program. For some, they make a connection to the local food bank so kids aren’t going home hungry. But the site facilitator really makes all those ties to raise the social, emotional health needs of that child and family.

Heaney: So you’ve got that assessor, so to speak. You’re going to match the child and/or family with the services. My understanding is that you’re also going to contract for services, as well.

 Rust: Yes, we will be. The Say Yes model is we work on frameworks that are strong. So the model we’re working on is Closing the Gap, currently run by United Way and Catholic Charities, and now Say Yes is a key partner along with the Buffalo Public Schools. Say Yes and Closing the Gap collectively will bring the facilitator role to every Buffalo public school in the district over the next four years to put those interventions and services in place. It’s a tremendous resource to the district and we work closely with them – the student support teams, guidance, the social worker. And having that extra body to focus on those needs – again, we started on the question of poverty.

Can we turn it around over night? No. Can we help over time? Absolutely. And that role is a key unit in helping that.

Heaney: So the way it’s going to work is you will assess a child, you’ll match with services, you’ll contract with service providers. Those service providers are out there now, but under contract in a different context. We talked a little bit off camera about how you don’t expect that the service part will result in a need for additional spending, but rather a reallocation of what’s already being spent. How does that reallocation work? I’m sure there’s a lot of agencies out there now that are doing this work, funding this work, and it’s going to be a shifting of dollars, responsibility. I can envision turf battles over this. How do you make that work?

Rust: We’re not threatening. We’re a friend to all in the community, the children, the community based organizations.

Heaney: But once you’re competing for dollars with organizations that depend on those dollars, you may not be perceived as a friend to all.

Rust: I’ll give you an example of how we are. After school is a prime example. There’s some quality after-school programs run both in the school buildings and in the community. Our goal is to bring that to scale so that every child in the district has an opportunity to access a quality after-school programming consisting of core curriculum and instruction with the district, quality recreation time, and an infusion of positive  development programs, whether that’s science, community gardens, computer programming, etcetera. We’ll bring that to scale, so we’ll be contracting with local CBOs to run those programs. Currently they exist in maybe a third of the Buffalo Public Schools. Plus there’s the programs that are based in the community. Over four years we’ll bring that to scale so there’s going to be room for all the after-school programs.

Heaney: In the schools?

Rust: School-based, yes. So they’ll be based in the community. We’re currently undergoing a project right now to build up that framework and decide where they should be housed. But we’re going to expand, so all the providers will have an opportunity to not only not go down, but actually grow.

The system can’t continue as is. People don’t settle for poor schools and crime, and often they go hand-in-hand.

Heaney: Give me a short menu of the types of services that you expect to be available once you’ve got this all in place. Give me half a dozen of the most common; it sounds like after school programming will be a part of it.

Rust: After school, summer enrichment, site facilitator role, three core program areas, legal services, low-cost healthcare. In Syracuse, they have mental health clinics based in every school right now. Tutoring and mentoring, our student monitoring system – it’s almost like a clock around a school to make it a community school, service-based, that focuses on all those needs of a child and collectively you’re building a well-rounded kid so they can move on and thrive in school.

Heaney: Where do the unions stand on this, because I covered Buffalo schools a long time ago and when  the concept of family services was broached way back when, there was some pushback from unions over jurisdiction issues. Has this been broached with Phil Rumore and others, and what has the reaction been?

Rust: I’ll go back to that governance model. Phil has been at the table every week since the inception. He’s been very supportive, as is the administrator’s union. We look forward to a continued strong working relationship.

Heaney: So there has not been pushback?

Rust: Not only has there not been pushback, there’s been tremendous support. The scholarship is powerful, Jim. We’ve been talking about system reform  here, too. But it’s everybody’s benefit – the teachers, the children, the families, the district – for children to move on and access quality education.

The system can’t continue as is. People don’t settle for poor schools and crime, and often they go hand-in-hand. I’ve found both the unions to be supportive. And we host our biweekly meetings in McKinley High School, where Crystal Barton is the principle.

Heaney: Talk to me a bit about the school reform piece. 

Rust: We’ve been working with independent outside consultants, national research partners to come in and analyze all the assets in the school district, in the county, in the city. Also we’ve taken a look – I think I mentioned earlier – at the core curriculum and instruction. They look for the strengths, look for the weaknesses, look at class size. They look at the course offerings. They look at the quality of instruction, the youth engagement. They take a look at HR, IT, the special education needs, and the current financing in the district.

Heaney: So they’re doing a very thorough review of the whole operation, and they’re going to come up with the recommendations?

Rust: Yes. Well the recommendations will be made so we’ll release these reports publicly with the consultants and the school board and Doctor Brown.

Heaney: What’s the time frame for that?

Rust: The end of this month, early next month.

Heaney: So late October, early November.

Rust: And what that does Jim, that drives the strategic planning. So we will then work with the same partners to work with Doctor Brown and the board and the unions on a strategic plan. And we’ll work to implement that plan and measure it in the years to come. So we can look at these – of course it’s going to have some weaknesses. I look at it as nobody’s opened the books like this before or gone through these reviews. They should be commended for the work. It gives us an opportunity to move forward collectively and have this strategic plan we can all be held accountable for.

Heaney: What’s been mentioned the most in terms of conversation about Say Yes has been the scholarships. So talk to me about who gets it, how much they get, and where they can go with it.

Rust: The scholarship – August 23 we announced our private compact in addition to SUNY, CUNY – a banner day for kids in in Western New York. The scholarship is eligible to all Buffalo public school graduates and charter school graduates, assuming they meet the minimum eligibility requirements. And that means at least grades nine through 12 in the district to access the scholarship. So that’s the minimum.

Heaney: So you’ve got to have attended all four years?

Rust: You have to have attended at least all four years. And the longer families are in Buffalo, the better they get. We’re looking to invest in families who invest in Buffalo, and I can talk about some economic impact down the road. But all graduates are eligible from Buffalo city and charter schools. They’re eligible for all SUNY and CUNY colleges, and that’s a tremendous opportunity – large research institutions like UB and Albany, places like Geneseo. If a kid is interested in fashion they can go down to FIT and we cover the tuition.

Heaney: So what do you get? You get a full ride for tuition, not room and board?

Rust: Last-dollar tuition. I’ll touch on room and board piece.

What that means is we ask children to take advantage of the grants and scholarships that are offered by the federal and state government. Their TAP and their PELL, and we finish off the gap for children from a tuition standpoint. Now for kids that max out on TAP and PELL, they can also apply for another award from us that’s called an Opportunity Scholarship. That’s up to an additional $2,000 per year toward room and board to live on campus.

Heaney: And the private schools?

Rust: Currently we have 20 generous private institutions that are signed on board.

Heaney: Give me a couple of the biggies.

Rust: There are internationally renowned educations of higher institutions such as the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Rochester, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT),  Syracuse, Colgate – all the local partners are on board. St. Bonaventure, Canisius, Niagara, Medaille- I’ll touch on Medaille for a minute, they offer unlimited scholarship opportunities for Buffalo and Syracuse scholars – tremendous commitment by them.

Some of the schools have different details involved with the private compact. For SUNY and CUNY there is zero income eligibility, so whether your family makes $5,000 or $2 million you’re on board. For a lot of the privates, the income cap is $75,000, that does waiver for some of them. But at the same part they’re offering a tremendous resource for children. Villa Maria is a perfect example; they offer tremendous vocational programs for kids, and that gives kids more opportunity to expand on what they’re interested in, not just the traditional liberal arts education.

All the local partners have stepped up and again, everybody has been supportive of the work we’re trying to do. And the partners should really all be applauded for their commitment to the kids of the City of Buffalo.

Heaney: Let’s talk outcomes. If I’m interviewing you 10 years from now – I’m going to bounce a couple numbers off you to give us, at least an approximate number, of where you think things will end up if we’re successful here in Buffalo. Right now 51 percent of Buffalo students graduate from high school. If Say Yes is reasonably successful, what’s the range that we can expect that 51 percent to move to?

Rust: I’ll start with Syracuse. It’s a much smaller district, between a half and two-thirds of the size of Buffalo. Within four years in Syracuse, starting in ’08, their graduation rate is up 7 percent in the last four years, and that’s a minimum. We’re still waiting for last year’s numbers. And the college matriculation rate is up 20 percent. Now that is a huge, powerful number, Jim.

Heaney: Let me do some math here on the fly. If it’s a 7 percent increase over four years, and we match Syracuse, we’re at over 15 percent in 10 years. Right? That puts us in about 65 percent, so according to my back-of-the-envelope math – we go from half of Buffalo students graduating to two-thirds. And right now of the half that graduate, 60 percent go on to college or some kind of post-secondary education.

Rust: Yes.

Heaney: You say that number in Syracuse over four years increased 20 percent.

Rust: The number of children matriculated into college increased by 20 percent.

Heaney: That would put us over 100 percent, which isn’t going to happen. But what I gather from what you’re saying is about two-thirds of Buffalo public school students would graduate and a vast majority of them would go onto some sort of college or post-secondary education.

Rust: Post-secondary is key, because it’s for the kids who are interested in the vocational work, too.

Heaney: Well, that would represent a huge turnaround, and you could probably run for mayor (laughs).

Rust: I’m staying where I am, I love the work.