GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – As the school year was winding down this month and dozens of commencements were being staged, Say Yes Guilford, the organization founded on the premise of providing college tuition to graduates of Guilford County Schools, announced it was doling out more than $1.1 million this year.

The organization said in a release that these dollars would provide grants to 742 students who would be attending North Carolina’s public institutions and the roughly 100 private schools that partner with Say Yes To Education.

Say Yes Guilford CEO Wendy Poteat (SAY YES)

This was the mission Say Yes promised – last-dollar college tuition – when it arrived in Greensboro in 2015. But that mission has changed in scope since its inception, with financial realities overtaking its promises, and now Say Yes Guilford may not even be “Say Yes.”

That was the surprise announcement that emerged earlier this year when Wendy Poteat, the organization’s president & CEO, told the Guilford County Board of Supervisors that the national Say Yes to Education organization that had brought the concept to town had closed its doors.

“We’re having a conversation of, should we still be ‘Say Yes’ in this community,” she told the commissioners.

Poteat said in a response to follow-up to questions from WGHP that her organization’s contract with Say Yes to Education had required the name to remain in place until July (or fiscal year 2022-23), but “with the dissolution of SYTE, that timeline is no longer relevant.

“I shared this news with commissioners, so they were aware of one of the reasons we are considering a name change,” she wrote in response to those questions. “I do not know if they knew about SYTE dissolution prior to my mentioning it. Since we have been operating independently since 2018, there has not been reason to discuss the national organization.”

Poteat’s reference to that independence suggests a history lesson is in order. Her local chapter’s matriculation through the halls of philanthropy has been anything but simple.

In the beginning

Say Yes Guilford was introduced in 2015 at Ragsdale High School. (WGHP)

In 2015 Say Yes To Education and Guilford County announced to some fanfare a partnership that was based on a program founded in 1987 in Philadelphia by George Weiss, an investor who had promised to pay the college tuition to a group of sixth-graders if they graduated from high school. That concept was adapted and expanded to several cities and established broader programs in Syracuse, New York (in 2008) and in Buffalo, New York (in 2012). Guilford County became its third district-wide chapter.

Guilford County Schools and several nonprofits, including the Guilford Education Alliance, raised $32.5 million in gifts. The national group promised $15 million, and Say Yes Guilford announced it would provide last-dollar scholarships to state schools (and some private schools) for any student who graduated from GCS. Those dollars were prorated based on how many years a student attended GCS schools.

This was a chest-thumping moment for community leaders who envisioned parents moving to Guilford County just to take advantage of the program. Say Yes also promised tutoring and staff-development programs to help students and teachers throughout their educational experience in an effort to improve reading and raise test scores. This was a huge investment in education.

But in 2017 – after Say Yes Guilford had awarded $5.8 million in scholarships for graduating seniors – reality set in. That sort of scholarship distribution could not be sustained, and a need-based system was adopted to help the students who most needed financial aid to attend college at any level.

In reality, the organization changed in just about every way imaginable. That started with its leadership and its overall structure. And not everyone was happy about this.

New approach

Poteat, who had a long resume of community involvement and leadership positions with nonprofits, came aboard in 2019.

“When SYTE established Say Yes Guilford as a chapter of the national organization in 2015, the contract stipulated the local leadership would take control of the non-profit after five years,” she said. “The scholarship overpayment forced local leaders to change the scholarship model in 2017, and by summer 2018, very little of the original staff remained at SYG.

“In early 2019, the two local governing boards merged, and the new board began to investigate accelerating the timeline to take full local control, so that they could begin adding the support services that attracted early advocates to the program.”

She said that board members Alan Duncan and David Miller worked with the leadership of Say Yes To Education to negotiate the transition to local control. “They signed an agreement from a new agency that would oversee the implementation of a variety of support services, while transitioning the scholarship payments to SYG,” she said.

Say Yes Guilford lists 12 employees, and Poteat serves on its board of directors, which consists of 30 members from educational, business, nonprofit and volunteer arenas. Three of them, Duncan, Nora Carr of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and Walker Sanders, president of the Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro, were principals in the launch of this entire enterprise.

Say Yes Guilford’s most recently posted 990 IRS filing shows that in 2019 total revenue was $1,064,981, with expenses of $657,937 and $407,044 in net income. All the income is from donations.

“SYG has received no funding from Guilford County, the city of Greensboro, the city of High Point or Guilford County Schools,” Poteat said. “All funds are grants or donations from private foundations, businesses and individuals.”

And that $15 million from Say Yes To Education? Well, that’s not quite the current figure. “The agreement between SYTE National and SYG after becoming a local nonprofit was a payout of $2.5M over 4 years, of which SYTE National has a remaining balance of $230K,” Poteat said.

Say Yes Guilford’s published these impact figures in its most recent annual report. (SAY YES GUILFORD)

The impact

To date Say Yes Guilford says it has provided more than $12.6 million in scholarships for GCS students and claims another $25.4 million in impact from its deal with more than 100 private colleges.

Poteat puts that at 2,361 GCS graduates who “have received scholarships through SYG and partners since Fall 2016. This includes students receiving last-dollar tuition scholarships and opportunity grants directly from SYG, and students receiving full tuition and fees from partner private institutions.

The organization’s annual report from 2021 shows that the percentage of each graduating class receiving scholarships increased from 6.7% in the Class of 2016 to 31.5% in the Class of 2020, which was 11.3% greater than in 2019.

Tutoring programs

And then there is the ongoing issue of helping students improve as they transition from kindergarten to high school. Many government leaders, educators and parents have decried what they see as a significant learning loss from the COVID-19 pandemic and its remote learning.

GCS – like many school districts and state funding programs – is working to develop tutoring programs designed to help close those gaps and to catch up students to the levels where they normally would have been.

“We are working this summer to expand our tutoring program into more elementary schools this fall, finalizing our middle school plans to include the introduction of our new mobile makerspace, and rolling out a new program to support high schoolers, who plan to continue their education in college,” Poteat said. 

“SYG piloted the HELPS tutoring program in two GCS elementary schools and the D-UP after-school program in fall 2019; 100% of participating students showed growth by spring 2020. When students began learning remotely, SYG shifted all tutoring sessions to a virtual platform and introduced a free virtual community program available to any GCS student K-8.”

She said that during the pandemic-affected 2020-21 academy year, Say Yes Guilford’s tutoring programs served more than 200 students at no cost to families or schools.  She said the HELPS program expanded into Sedgefield, McLeansville, Summerfield and Reed Fork elementary schools.

“Last month we learned GCS was awarded a $2 million federal grant to support more tutoring, and SYG will help facilitate that program,” she said. “We are currently working with GCS to determine into which schools the program will expand.”

The name game      

So back to the beginning. What sort of name change might Say Yes say yes to?

“We continue to explore changing the name of our organization,” Poteat said. “As you might know, this is not a simple process, and we are working thoughtfully keeping students and families at the center of our work.”

That was part of strategic planning the board of directors undertook last fall, and the possibility of a name change emerged as part of it.

“We are not exploring merging with another organization,” she said, “but will continue to collaborate with many organizations doing good work in Guilford County.”