Billy Green fell asleep in a homeless shelter every night during high school dreaming of making it out of Spanish Harlem. Today, the 24-year-old aspiring doctor, who will be a senior at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., knows he could easily have ended up in jail or dead—like many of the people he saw hanging out on the streets while he kept his head buried in the books.
But Green didn’t make the journey from shelter to internships at Mount Sinai School of Medicine alone. As a student at the High School for Leadership and Public Service, a small college-preparatory school in Manhattan’s Wall Street area with a public-policy focus, Green took advantage of the school’s close partnership with Syracuse University.
The partnership, begun in 1993, is unusual in that it relies heavily upon Syracuse alumni. For instance, an alumni couple helped Green find housing, medical internships, and the opportunity to take classes in subjects such as calculus over the summer at the private university in Syracuse, N.Y. That support, in turn, helped him realize that going to college could be a reality.
“I always thought I would end up on the street,” Green says candidly. “The mentoring relationship gave me something more. The environment there at the school was very nurturing. When I was living in a shelter, the teachers at the school allowed me to stay late and do homework. The program opened up a window for me in ways I never would have had before.”
“Leadership,” as students and staff members call the 14-floor vertical sliver of a school, which is squeezed between towering office buildings, began as the brainchild of Donald Shupak, a Syracuse alumnus who brought staff members from the university’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs to the table with the New York City board of education.
Conceived as a way to provide students with a focused alternative to large, anonymous high schools, Leadership now enrolls 550 students from all five of the city’s boroughs. Half the students are selected as an educational option, and half are accepted through a lottery system.
First-year students learn about leadership themes through reading and class discussions, trips to city agencies, and participation in a “shadow day” in which freshmen spend time with someone in a public-policy position. In later grades, students take leadership and policy classes and use a United Nations-developed curriculum that, among other features, engages students in group projects involving global issues and conflicts.
Jane Present, a 1956 Syracuse graduate, began pushing alumni to become more involved with the school when she realized there were some 25,000 Syracuse alumni living in New York City who could help make students’ lives and educational experiences better.
“My bet was there was a bunch of alumni who would be prepared to make sure these kids wouldn’t slip through the cracks,” says Present, who has served as a mentor for Green. “I told them, ‘We are privileged, and we can help level the playing field for these kids.’ My bet paid off.”
Present started the “Friends of Leadership,” a cadre of older Syracuse alumni that meets with Leadership staff members once a month to find out what resources the school lacks. Among other projects, the group purchased a piano for the school, secured uniforms for its basketball team, wrote to every publishing company in New York City to request book donations for the previously limited-selection library, and helped attract a $10,000 grant from the Louis Armstrong Foundation to buy musical instruments for the school. Last summer, seven Leadership students took classes at Syracuse University’s summer college for high school students. Syracuse officials also have pledged a free laptop computer to every student from Leadership who attends the university.
“We beg, we borrow, we steal,” says Present, who jokes that she runs a finishing school because she also provides lessons on dining and other tips on social graces to some students who previously have never eaten at a fine restaurant or attended a cultural event. “One at a time, we are trying to make sure these young people are afforded the same privileges as our children.”
The school’s principal, Ada Rosario Dolch, an outgoing woman who patrols the halls with a walkie-talkie, says that the assistance students receive from Syracuse alumni provides an added layer of support for students who often grow up poor and in households where parents have no experience navigating the professional world or the college-application process.
“We just want them to make a connection with an adult who can have a positive influence in their lives,” she says.
Maribelis Olivares, 16, came to the United States in 1993 from the Dominican Republic. As a 14-year-old student at Leadership, she was paired with Liz Nagengast, a 1991 Syracuse graduate who worked as a professional actress for several years before teaming up with another Syracuse graduate to start a special-events business.
Nagengast took Olivares, shy and uncertain of the relationship at first, out to dinner and the movies. The two talked on the phone and stayed in touch via e-mail. Soon, the ice had broken, and they worked together on completing college applications. Last summer, Olivares went to Syracuse University’s summer college, where she earned six college credits. An aspiring doctor, she has been accepted to Syracuse and will begin classes early this summer.
Olivares will be the first person in her family to attend college. The Friends of Leadership will help pay her college expenses. “The connection with Syracuse is really helpful,” she says. “If you get the opportunity to go to a university and have people advise you, it is a real advantage. It helps you with the whole college process.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 06, 2001 edition of Education Week as University’s Partnership Draws Upon Alumni Pool