UC Davis Sacramento Area Youth Speaks (SAYS) – “Creating pathways for high-risk youth into higher education.”

Founded in 2008, SAYS utilizes critical literacy practices and spoken word performance poetry to engage, educate, and empower students within and beyond the walls of school. SAYS is an award-winning model of publicly engaged scholarship because of its innovative approach to community-university-school partnerships. 

The UCD SAYS program serves thousands of underperforming students in the highest need areas in the region. Our year-round program creates pathways for high-risk youth into higher education. 

First, SAYS places trained community-based poet-mentor educators into middle and high school classrooms to work hand-in-hand with teachers to engage, educate, and empower students. As these young people develop as the authors of their own lives through spoken word performance poetry, they become agents of change for themselves, their families, and their communities. 

Second, to further develop their leadership skills and lifelong development, SAYS organizes the regional youth poetry competition that occurs from February to March. During this process, hundreds of students compete to be on the SAYS Slam team where they will go on to serve as citywide ambassadors. It is worthwhile to note that in 2018, the SAYS Slam team placed 3rd in the world—among 500 teams—at the International Youth Spoken Word Poetry Festival, Brave New Voices.  

Third, 500 students in the SAYS program attend the SAYS Summit College Day at UC Davis in May. This unique experience emboldens students’ horizons as they learn strategies to reach higher. Look inside the SAYS Summit College Day by watching a short video: https://vimeo.com/43192481

Fourth, as a culminating activity, each June, the SAYS poet-mentor educators work with their classes to produce an anthology of their writing. This publication is then paired with the curriculum and is used to inform our professional development and training modules throughout the subsequent school year. 

Fifth, a select group of juniors and seniors are chosen to attend the SAYS Warrior Scholar Academy in the summer at UC Davis. These scholars are mentored by first generation UC Davis students and are given access to the codes of power necessary to navigate new systems, while remaining true to oneself.  

In addition to these five core programmatic elements, SAYS operates an outreach center inside the Greater Sacramento Urban League in Del Paso Heights (Sacramento, CA). At the SAYS Outreach Center, students receive free tutoring from UC Davis interns and we fortify deep connections between the community and college. 


SAYS Statistics

  • 81% of SAYS participants will be the first in their families to attend college;

  • 12% will be the first in their families to graduate from high school;

  • In the SAYS elective class, each student receives 220 hours of instruction time as well as case management services. 

Among these students, we have shown a

  • 48% increase in student attendance in the treatment classes with a poet-mentor educator;

  • 17% decrease in suspensions, expulsions, and detentions for students in the SAYS program; 

  • Across all SAYS students, there is an average 1.6 GPA increase. In other words, prior to the intervention class, a student had an average cumulative GPA of 1.8 and after the SAYS elective course, the GPA increased to a 3.4. This leap in school engagement and academic success is the byproduct of a classroom oasis that radically engages, educates, and empowers students with culturally sustaining pedagogies and our award-winning critical literacy curriculum.

  • 94% of SAYS students who make it into college are graduating in five years or less. 

SAYS Testimonies:

“SAYS is the glue that holds learning together.” 

School Administrator

“If you don’t know who you are SAYS will help you find out… SAYS is a second chance for me. I joined SAYS my sophomore year. It helped me gain confidence that I lacked due to depression I was experiencing. I found a safe haven for my emotions and feelings knowing I won’t be judged, but inspired by the people around me. SAYS also helped me grow as a literary writer. Writing poems helped me vent in a healthy way and I grew interested in spoken word. Not only does SAYS help us in our personal lives, SAYS makes sure we take education seriously and that education is key to our futures. SAYS is creating scholars and young Kings and Queens. SAYS is one of the most inspiring programs I have ever been a part of.” 

Destiny, High School Student

Teenagers are usually described as defiant, disrespectful and disinterested. However, no one ever takes the time to figure out why. SAYS is my outlet to be creative and free to be me. There is something about our unity that makes me want to come to school and see my SAYS brothers and sisters. I love them! This class and the whole concept of SAYS. The raw and uncut version of the youth needs to be expressed so we can continually progress!” 

Mikela, High School Student

“SAYS, under Dr. Watson’s visionary leadership, is doing some of the most impactful work with diverse and underserved youth that I know of. I have learned a lot about effective, culturally responsive ways to increase achievement through my connections with SAYS, and I will continue to support this work wholeheartedly.” 

Dr. Jabari Mahiri, Professor of Education, William & Mary Jane Brinton Family Chair in Urban Teaching, University of California, Berkeley