No stranger to privilege, educator Ann Tisch volunteers her heart, her soul, and her social commitment to a trend-defying girls' school in East Harlem.
From the street, the Young Women's Leadership School is almost invisible. Identified only by a tiny bronze plaque, it occupies five floors of an anonymous office building in a poor area of East Harlem. The absence of institutional architecture or a recreation yard may be the first clue that Young Women's Leadership School is no ordinary inner-city public school. The second is the steady stream of girls in uniforms, mostly African-American and Latina, laughing, squealing, or otherwise bouncing through its doors and off its walls.
Young Women's Leadership School is the brainchild of Ann Rubenstein Tisch, 47, herself a product of Kansas City, Missouri, public schools. The notion of reforming public education occurred to Tisch in 1985, when she was working as a news correspondent for NBC. An interview with a hopeless teenage mother made it blatantly clear that schools could do a better job. Tisch told herself then that she'd get back to this one day.
Four years later, when she was 36, her life took an unexpected turn. She met and eventually married Andrew Tisch, whose family who owns the Loews Corporation. Although she married into money, Tisch knew her dream couldn't be bought. She bristled at being repeatedly called a socialite in the press. Tisch felt that money without action wouldn't change anything. She was ready to get her hands dirty. As Andrew puts it: "A socialite goes to the lunch to honor a school in Harlem; Ann goes to the school."
In late 1993, having left her full-time TV job, Tisch laid the groundwork for her publicly funded all-girls school that would focus on math and science. At that point there were only two other single-sex public schools in the United States, both for girls—one in Philadelphia, the other in Baltimore. Tisch had to convince the fractious powers in New York City, who run the largest, most tumultuous school system in the country, that they needed the third.
Today, on the school walls are photos of Young Women's Leadership School's first class of graduates—every single one of them accepted into college, including such places as Smith, NYU, and Mount Holyoke, most with full scholarships. Of these 32 girls who got their diplomas last June, 90 percent are the first generation in their families ever to attend a university, 25 percent are immigrants, and almost three-quarters live below the poverty line. The five-year-old Young Women's Leadership School has, according to New York City school chancellor Harold O. Levy, "outshone everyone's expectations."
Asked how she took on such a behemoth project, Tisch paraphrases Mother Teresa: "If I look at the masses, I will never act; if I look at one, I will."
What You Can Do
From the October 2001 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
We Hear You!