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MAY 2004

An Interview with Ann Tisch

by Pola Rosen, Ed.D.

EU: What was your motivation in starting the Young Women's Leadership School (YWLS)?

Ann Tisch (AN): The idea came to me when I was working for NBC as a correspondent. I was doing a story for NBC Nightly News with Tom Brokaw. It was a school in the inner city of Milwaukee, which had constructed a daycare center for teen moms so they could come back to school and graduate. It was during an interview with one of the teen mothers when the idea came to me. We asked her where she saw herself 5 years from now. She openly, quietly wept. At that moment I thought, “I don't think we're doing enough for these girls. I think the answer is to put them on a completely different path. Maybe someday I'll do something like that.”

That was the idea and then I started getting involved with NYC public education through the Principal for a Day Program, and getting a look at what was going on locally. It seemed to me that many elementary schools were doing a good job and looked very good, but that the unraveling began soon after that.

EU: Why did you found an all girls' school?

AT: First of all, it is an option and a choice that is available to affluent, parochial school girls and I thought, “If it works in those communities, why wouldn't it work in an inner-city community?” I thought it addressed a number of things—the crisis of teenage pregnancy, which keeps girls in really a pernicious cycle of poverty. The choice simply didn't exist for girls in inner cities and that's why I thought it would be a good idea. I thought the inner city girls should have exactly what girls in other communities have—a first rate education complete with college prep—not a gifted program, but one that would offer them a completely different path in their lives—a path straight to college, wherever that college might be with whatever structure it might have. The mandate was to break the cycle, get them to college, get them to graduate, and then the rest would take care of itself.

EU: It's remarkable that YWLS has a 100 percent college acceptance rate. How did you accomplish it?

AT: I can't take credit for the idea. It came from Arlene Gibson, head of the Spence School. Arlene was one of our earliest supporters and has been very active in the single-sex girl schools all her life. She came up to our school very early, before she was at Spence. She advised that I hire a first rate college guidance person and “the rest will take care of itself.” I was smart enough to listen to her. We still have the same person we hired in 1998. He works with all grades. We replicated his position when we began a program called “College Bound” which is now in six NYC public schools. We have seven counselors and served 300 some-odd students last year citywide; we brought in 4.5 million dollars in scholarships and financial aid. The average grant for our college-bound students is $10,000 per year. We hire college counselors, train them and place them in each school full time with a case load of about 75 to 100. If there are more students in a particular school, we add another counselor.

EU: How do you choose schools that will have College Bound programs?

AT: We met with all the superintendents in the old system. We explained the program and they helped us find the schools. We identified small schools where no college guidance person was in place. The director of our program is a very well known, nationally recognized counselor named Kathy Morgan who was working in the Bronx at All Hallows school.

EU: Where does the funding come from?

AT: Our counselors are experts at finding their way around the financial aid system and finding money for our kids. Some of it is private but most of it is not. We have an amazing range of colleges that we send out kids to: Skidmore, Gettysburg, Syracuse, Dillard, Bates, NYU, Cornell. There are so many students in the NYC public schools that are college capable but will never get there because college admissions and financial aid is such a difficult process. Most of these kids are the first generation of their families to go to college.

EU: How many graduating classes have you had thus far? Do you have follow-up? Reunions? Tracking?

AT: We very much keep in touch with them. To do a follow-up piece and tracking of our students is a full-time job. What we can say now is that we have a 92% retention rate for our kids who have gone to our college, which is fantastic. The national retention rate is 50%.

EU: Do you have any problems with recruitment and retention of teachers?

AT: We had problems early on during the first couple of years of the school. I attribute that to the leadership that we had in place. We changed leadership and have hardly any teacher turnover. Kathleen Ponze is a terrific principal.

EU: Can you describe your own education/mentors?

AT: All the way up to and including high school, I attended public schools in Kansas City, Missouri. I loved my public school experience—it was one of my motivators. I believed that public education was savable—but not so unless you offer people alternatives. Then I went to Washington University in St. Louis.  I had some incredible teachers. You know how magical that can be. One of them was a professor at Washington U., Dr. Bob Pittman. He had done a lot of early work in alcoholism and substance abuse. He was just amazing. He stands out in my mind.

EU: What are some of the problems you've encountered?

AT: Public schools are difficult. We are in great transition. There's nothing easy about what we do day in and day out. We have problems like any other school and it's more pronounced in a small school. Jurisdictional issues, financial issues. Sometimes a student and mother show up on a Tuesday morning and say, “We were told to come here.”

I try to put out those fires and use my influence to connect the school to the community. Educating kids is an enormous job with a lot of complications. We have a fabulous security officer who's been with us for many years. We've had our share of kids who are difficult—want to solve their problems with fighting—and we deal with them. In the beginning, the problem was people who wanted to shut us down.

EU: What accomplishments are you proudest of?

AT: I'm the proudest of those kids. Every time I talk to a group of students at Leadership I let them know the reason why the school is doing so well; it is because they are doing such a good job.

Fulfillment level in public education is amazingly great—much different than any of my other jobs—it's so real, if I have any doubt that what I'm doing is important, all I have to do is drive to the school and see the real people who have real lives and real futures and that is an amazing feeling.

EU: What is your vision for the future?

AT: I want to expand the College Bound, and it's one piece of public education that's fixable. It has a profound effect not just on the juniors and seniors who are taking their SAT's and going to college, but it really changes the culture of the school. When the younger kids go up and see the bulletin board of the college trips that the older kids are taking and the excitement with admissions and college fairs—it really does make a difference. Ultimately, I think, once we've been around for more years we will affect the dropout rate. This program gets a lot of bang for the buck.

We have already replicated YWLS in Philadelphia, Chicago, Dallas and are opening in the Bronx in the fall. Oprah has always come to speak to our first graduating class in each city.

EU: What advice would you give to young people?

AT: When embarking on something, don't consider changing the world. Make it small. Otherwise being involved in change and reform and dreams can be much too overwhelming, to the point where people will not act.

A quote from Mother Teresa has inspired me throughout my life: “If I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at individuals, I will.”

Education Update, Inc.
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