June 19, 1987. On the stage in the hot auditorium of the Belmont Elementary School in West Philadelphia were 112 students, all of them black, all between eleven and fourteen years old, most from families on public assistance. For some reason unknown to them, their graduation from sixth grade was being recorded by TV cameras and attended by Philadelphia dignitaries. Diane Weiss, a woman they had never seen before, took the stage, threw a football at them, and announced in breathless, quivering tones that she and her husband, George, would send them all to college—free.
The students, for the most part, were baffled. But their parents and teachers were not. The room erupted in cheers and tears as they recognized the import of this extraordinary offer. Nothing seemed impossible at that moment—not even the notion that 112 children from this tragically blighted pocket of Philadelphia could beat the odds and go to college.
Twelve years later, George Weiss—who could not attend the announcement himself because of a bad back—has spent more than $5 million on these students, for tutoring, counseling, social services, and college expenses. By some analysts’ reckoning, what he’s gotten for his money—so far, eleven Bachelor’s degrees, two Associate’s degrees, and seven vocational certificates—isn’t much.
But Weiss’s evaluation is very different. Numbers and the bottom line may guide his Wall Street trading, but not this endeavor. For him, no amount of money could pay for what his students have accomplished, for what he’s learned, for the relationships he’s formed. It’s been an investment, he says, worth every penny, a life-changing experience for him as well as for the beneficiaries of his generosity. Nothing pains him more than to see his Say Yes to Education program cited as Exhibit A to bolster the argument that showering resources on inner city students doesn’t yield the desired results. “This has helped save so many lives,” he says.
Like the young woman with two children, whose mother died when she was in high school, who earned an Associate’s degree and was bailed out time and again by a caring staff after she made bad decisions. “Where would she be without our program?” Weiss asks.
Like the twins who were in special education and struggled through school, but are now gainfully employed as a security guard and factory worker. Like the young man who sits in prison for murder after a drug deal gone bad, but counts on Say Yes to help him finish his education and find a job when he gets out.
And like the mother of four sons who recently described the help a Say Yes counselor gave her when she was homeless as “a raft somebody threw you in the middle of the ocean when you had no food, no water, no way to get home.” A high school graduate, she’s now pursuing an Associate’s degree at Peirce College in Philadelphia.
“It kills me when people look at the numbers and say that a rich white guy has wasted a lot of money,” said Weiss on the day after he visited the young man in prison. Without Say Yes, he suggests, a lot more would be dead or imprisoned. Too many of them are.
More Felons Than College Graduates
Despite Weiss’s fervor, he recognizes that the numbers are sobering. Even with all the extra help, just 68 of the 112 graduated from high school (although the graduation rate for the previous year’s class was less than one-third). It’s a more impressive accomplishment considering that 44 of the Belmont 112 had been classified learning disabled.
More of the 112 are felons—20, at last count—than have college degrees. Those, for the most part, are the special education students. And two-thirds of the female students in the program became teen mothers, severely compromising their ability to finish school. In fact, the entire group of students, now in their mid-twenties, has produced more than 90 children, a pregnancy epidemic that the program was at a loss to stem.
Four young men have died, all violently, two of them before they turned 15. One, Walter Brown, had grown as close to Weiss as a son and even spent a weekend in Hartford, where Weiss lives. But the miserably unhappy young man, living in a group home because he didn’t get along with his family, stole a car and wrapped it around a tree. This was something Weiss never anticipated: long before he ever wrote a check for college tuition, Weiss had to decide whether he’d pay for a funeral.
Another young man, a jobless high school dropout with a pregnant girlfriend, committed suicide at age 20. He left a note saying, “I did my best.”
Two males and one female have been convicted of murder. Another accidentally shot his best friend to death.
Only one had a path through college that was uninterrupted by travails such as parenthood, flunking out, academic trouble, discipline problems, and frequent changes of majors and schools. He’s now an aeronautical engineer.
Declining (To Set) Standards
In setting up Say Yes to Education, Weiss, a successful Wall Street money manager, was inspired by Eugene Lang’s I Have A Dream program. In 1981, Lang made an impromptu decision to offer free college tuition to the graduates of his old elementary school in Harlem, and then franchised the program across the country.
It was the kind of grand gesture made for Weiss, a self-made multi-millionaire who worked his way through the University of Pennsylvania. Weiss chose West Philadelphia because he felt that the success of the program would depend not on the money—money, in many ways, was the least of it—but on his personal involvement and the expertise available at the university.
The son of a bookkeeper and a research chemist who had been smuggled out of Austria by the United States government during World War II, Weiss bused tables in high school at a restaurant in his hometown of Brookline, Massachusetts. He enrolled at Penn on the advice of a Boston University business professor who frequented the restaurant. The young busboy confided he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and the man told him that the Wharton School at Penn was the place to go.
According to his friends, Weiss started figuring out how he could give away his money before he had much of it to give. And such a noble experiment as adopting an entire inner-city class of students appealed to his innate optimism and his faith in human beings.
Yet, his deed was not universally praised. A columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer thought it arrogant to think Weiss could enter West Philadelphia like a fairy godmother and turn around such troubled lives. Weiss was criticized for how the students were chosen—at random. They did nothing to earn the gift. And Weiss set no standards for continued participation. He didn’t throw any of the students out, even if they committed murder.
“He took 112 kids who were unfortunate and decided he was going to parent them,” says Randall Sims, the senior coordinator of Say Yes, who has worked closely with the students from the beginning. Indeed, Weiss considers himself a father to all 112. And he treats them as a parent would, never abandoning them no matter what they do or how often they fail.
In a cutthroat world, that’s an admirable attitude. Yet, complained some, it sent the message that luck, not hard work, was the key to an education. In fact, the students’ middle-school peers, and even some teachers, resented the gift these students had received when others were viewed as more deserving. Such feelings are lost on Sims. “What’s the standard of worthiness you use for kids who come from an environment like this?” he asks.
But other college-access groups for disadvantaged students have set standards, not simply by choosing the highest achievers, but by screening students and their parents through an extensive application process. Also, the students must maintain some standard of behavior and academic achievement to remain in the program—reinforcing the notion that while unconditional support has its place, work and effort are the keys to success.
Leaving No Child Behind
But right from the beginning, Weiss was confronted with an ethical and human dilemma that made this approach nearly impossible. Unbeknownst to him and his Penn consultants, Belmont Elementary was a regional center for special education students. When the principal heard of the offer, she instructed her teachers to socially promote every student they possibly could into the lucky class, giving it an unusually high proportion of learning disabled students—nearly 40 percent.
Weiss and Sheldon Hackney, who was then the president of Penn, knew that the odds against turning some of these students into college material were immense. Many went into middle school barely able to recite the alphabet. But it was decided that excluding them from the offer would be the ultimate statement of hopelessness—a word that is not in Weiss’s vocabulary.
As it turned out, 16 of the 44 special education students got their high school diplomas, and a handful went on to college. But most of them dropped out, wound up in jail, or had children as teenagers. And Say Yes literally had to split in two—one set of interventions for those in regular education, and another, focused on acquiring vocational skills, for those in special ed. This division hampered the program’s focus over the years and, ultimately, caused a form of triage: was it more essential to get a dropout into drug counseling, or a college-aspirant into an SAT prep class?
Today, Weiss is proud of his decision to include those students; he points out that those toting up the numbers often fail to note their inclusion. And he says that while he has always been open with his program’s statistics, others (notably, Lang’s “I Have a Dream”) haven’t shared records on their effectiveness.
The experience didn’t deter Weiss from sponsoring other classes, but they differ from the Belmont 112 in critical ways. Most notably, they include virtually no special education students. And Weiss is starting younger. In Hartford, where he lives, and in West Philadelphia’s Harrity Elementary, the programs started with third graders; in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with second graders. Also, more of them had working parents than the Belmont group.
Consider the results: Among the 58 Harrity students, now high school juniors, there have been just two pregnancies. In Hartford, 48 of the 78 are in college, and only two girls got pregnant. In Cambridge, where the 67-member Say Yes class is in tenth grade, there have been no pregnancies. While it has still been an uphill battle, more of these students have stayed on academic track than was true of the first group.
As George and Diane Weiss confronted the gulf between the students’ lives and their own, they had to adjust their expectations downwards. “We thought this was a great incentive, a great hope, and a better reality,” Diane Weiss told Philadelphia City Council members at their school budget hearing in April, 1992, two months before the first students graduated from high school. “We thought that this offer would not only sustain them, we thought it would save them. We thought it would be enough, more than enough. But it is never enough.”
“We were wrong, we were stupid, we didn’t know that in their world, our rules and assumptions do not apply,” said Diane. “The fact is, many of these kids can’t see past tomorrow; they may not survive today. And even though most of our kids are in eleventh grade, our offer seems to be not about when you finish high school, but if. It is a dogfight keeping them in school each and every day, because so much of the rest of their lives takes over.”
Slipping Through His Fingers
When he started Say Yes, Weiss said he didn’t want to lose a single student. He knew that was unlikely, but the swiftness with which reality took hold startled him.
Less than a year after the program’s inception, Richard Matthews, age 13, was stabbed to death by a crazed acquaintance of his guardian. Less than a year after that, he lost Walter Brown, the boy who crashed the stolen car. The first girl became pregnant after eighth grade. Several of the students’ families were ravaged by drugs. Some of the parents, overtly or more subtly, sabotaged their children’s success, fearful of them stepping out beyond the world they knew.
Weiss visited their homes, threw parties and picnics, threatened to cut them off if they continued to deal drugs, tutored them in vocabulary. As he came to know the students better, he realized that if he had had to face some of the circumstances as a child that they did, “I never would have made it.”
Early on, Weiss had dreams of helping to reform the Philadelphia school system by demonstrating what it could do to be successful with such students. He also had hoped to influence government policy in a major way. Neither happened, although Weiss has spoken out against changes that followed enactment of welfare-to-work legislation. He is concerned that the mandate to work is forcing many of the Say Yes moms out of college to take what seem like dead-end jobs.
“That’s insane,” he says. “There’s not enough of an educational component.” Pennsylvania, like most of the other states, does not count college coursework as part of the work requirement under the new welfare system.
In October, the Say Yes program is planning a major conference to judge its effectiveness and figure out where to go from here. For the Belmont 112, the formal part of the program—meaning the tuition support—ends in the year 2000. Weiss has mixed feelings, and he doesn’t plan to remove himself from the students’ lives.
“I can’t end it,” says Weiss. “Maybe the deal ends, but they’re still my kids.”
June 15, 1998. It’s eleven years, almost to the day, after George Weiss started Say Yes to Education. His bad back long since treated, Weiss is sitting in the Belmont Elementary School auditorium for the first time.
The self-assured voice of Harold Shields, one of the Belmont 112 and a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, rings out from the stage. Not yet settled in a career and not even accepted to graduate school, Shields nevertheless has decided that he couldn’t wait any longer to emulate his benefactor.
Weiss listens as Shields promises to set up a fund for the graduating class by setting aside a modest $30 a week and urging others to match him. If he gets the matching contributions, by the time these fifth graders graduate from high school, there will be enough money to give $1,000 scholarships to ten of them.
“I’m not related to anyone on the stage,” Shields said. “I just feel pride, and I feel this is what I can do right now. I can’t do much more. And to do much less is cheating them and cheating myself.”
It occurred to George Weiss that Harold Shields had learned the “ultimate lesson.” And that, he said, was the whole point. “To make a difference in your life and to make a difference in other people’s lives,” Weiss said. “Harold is doing that.”
Dale Mezzacappa covers education for the Philadelphia Inquirer and has followed the Belmont 112 since 1987.