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Free tuition program ends in Mass. with diplomas

Nancy Kelsey

A program that gained national attention in 1991 for offering to pay college tuition for 69 second-graders closed its doors in Cambridge last Friday.

The local “Say Yes to Education” program came to an end because the last of the original 69 students just graduated with a doctoral degree in pharmacy.

The program, funded in part by millionaire philanthropist and Boston native George Weiss, tracked the students from second grade through graduation — and then paid for their college tuition. Participants were chosen for their multicultural and economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I’d venture to say it’s my most successful program,” Weiss said in a phone interview.

Of the original 69 students, all but seven got their high school diplomas or GEDs, and more than half are now college graduates, said Anne Larkin, program director and a Lesley University professor.

Other “Say Yes to Education” programs are still operating in Philadelphia — the original site where the program was offered — as well as New York and Hartford, Conn.

Lesley University has been integral in helping the students reach their goals, providing free use of its facilities in Cambridge and other resources, Larkin said.

The program offered tutoring, before- and after-school programs, and summer camps among other resources including covering the eventual college tuition of 35 students. For all of his programs the price tag has been more than $35 million, Weiss said.

In addition to funding from Weiss, the programs rely on donations from individuals and sponsor families.

One of the beneficiaries, Steven Soares, remembers the day that Weiss spoke to his second-grade class in Cambridge.

“Back then the reaction was small,” he said. “The magnitude of what I just got never really sank in.”

Now, Soares is 26, living in New Hampshire and pursuing a job he’s wanted since he was a boy, when he watched airplanes take off and land at Boston’s Logan International Airport.

“I’ve always wanted to be an air traffic controller,” he said. “The ability to be who I am today — I would never have been able to achieve that.”

Other students went on to schools like the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania — Weiss’ alma mater. About 57 percent have completed a post-secondary education.

Michael Barros went the furthest in his education, getting his doctorate in pharmacy from the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences. Now Barros looks forward to helping younger students reach college as well.

“It makes you want to give a lot back,” he said.

That’s just what Weiss, Larkin and the “Say Yes” team hoped for. They have even established a nationwide alumni network.

“God gave me this ability to make money in the markets, and I feel an obligation to help the less fortunate,” said Weiss, the president of the Hartford, Conn.-based money management George Weiss Associates Inc. “I want to level the playing field.”

When his students call him on the 800 number set aside for them, Weiss sounds like a proud father telling them that the close of the program is not the end.

“They’re part of my family, my extended family,” he said. “Family doesn’t end.”

(Associated Press)