An Interview with Ann Tisch
was your motivation in starting the Young Women's Leadership
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
EU: Why did you found an all girls' school?
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?
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
EU: How do you choose
schools that will have College Bound programs?
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?
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?
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?
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
EU: What are some
of the problems you've encountered?
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.
accomplishments are you proudest of?
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.
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
EU: What is your
vision for the future?
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
advice would you give to young people?
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.
from Mother Teresa has inspired me throughout my life: “If
I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at individuals,