What led you to found the school?
Prior to founding the school I traveled around the country for the Department of Education studying alternative educational programs and I constantly came across a group of older and working students who weren't being served by traditional high school models. It's interesting to note that prior to World War II more students in New York City got their diplomas through night school programs than through day programs.
In a way it was a case of the right time and the right place. Today the school would probably be what we now call charter schools. The city and the Board of Education recognized the need and gave me the go ahead.
Q: How did you recruit teachers and students?
The first question I asked when contemplating the Night and Day school was to the teachers' union president Sandy Feldman, "Are you going to let teachers work at night?" And we agreed that no one would be assigned to work here and that even those who volunteered would have a two year right of return to their previous school if the schedule proved too much. This has served us really well because our teachers chose to be here and are very committed to the program. Our teachers tend to be either at the start or experienced teachers. If you have to be home for dinner it might not be the best fit, but for others it's a terrific opportunity.
We started with just 25 students. I started a recruitment program every where I could. We had ads on the subway we called the school the Evening Express The School for the City That Never Sleeps. I went to guidance counselors and said "Have you got older kids or working kids who just aren't making it?" And they were thrilled to have someplace to send these kids. I went on local radio shows and talked to social workers and put up flyers at homeless shelters, churches and everywhere at risk youth might be found. Today we serve about 1,600 students a year. Seventy percent of our graduates go on to college.
Q: How did you obtain all the additional services that Manhattan Night and Day extends to the students?
I started by just keeping the building open at night, but it soon became clear to me that if you haven't graduated by 18 there are other issues preventing you than just the school schedule. So I decided to address those needs head on. If you don't have a place to live you can't worry about going to school. If you don't have enough to eat or don't have health care, you aren't worried about getting to school. These kids needed the essentials. They needed general social work help.
I first started a network of friends from different walks of life to volunteer we had young Wall Street types, a housing expert, a very committed retiree. Those first volunteers made up the nucleus of the nonprofit board that we have today. That nonprofit arm enables us to do many things that other schools cannot. In addition to providing housing, employment, health and legal assistance, the nonprofit can help present our graduates to colleges so that the admissions boards really understand the achievement their diploma represents.
We are also the largest site of volunteers and have the largest volume of tutors in the city. We have upwards of 160 volunteers working with us. It actually costs us $1,000 less to educate each student than a conventional school because we use the plant day and night and only have one group of administrators and custodial staff.
Q: What is the make-up of the student body at Manhattan Comp?
Today our student body is 60% immigrant and 40% American-born. The daytime program is all English as a Second Language (ESL) and the night program is both ESL and standard curriculum. Our kids, being older, are more serious. They are dealing with adult problems and realize the need for jobs and for having a degree. They realize that our diploma has greater legitimacy than a GED and they also want the experience of really coming into a school environment which has all the elements of a traditional high school music, sports, etc. and they also know there's a lot of adults who really care about them.
The students are also more motivated in some ways. You don't have to go to school if you're 17 to 21. You can do things other than come to school. About one-third of our night students are young mothers. The night programs give them a chance to get their education in a world where child care is scarce. At night they can get the fathers, or family or friends to babysit people who'd be working during the day. Many people don't realize that many immigrants, especially older teens are expected to work. At our school you don't have to be here at 8 am you can come as late as 10 if you have to work in the evening or at night.
Q: What is special about the educational program at Manhattan Comp?
We really tailor the curriculum to the student's needs. One size does not fit all for our student body. We run on 10-week cycles. At any one time 30 percent of the students might be out working late, or just plain exhausted. Thus if they're out for a period of time they won't be losing a whole half year. That's also why we are open all year.
For immigrants who've had schooling in their home countries, I can give them credit for their math and science courses, and thus they can just concentrate on their English and social studies requirements. We offer them English immersion with both classes and one-on-one tutors.
Q: What is the ultimate goal of the program?
Our ultimate goal is to graduate students. This is the last chance to make productive tax paying citizens out of these kids before we lose them to welfare or crime. In your twenties the burdens of life overwhelm you. I can't give them back their youth and I can't give them a functional family situation but I can give them a diploma so that they can get on with their lives.
Q: Do you see a growing national need for schools like yours?
Well, there has always been a need for this kind of program, but because of No Child Left Behind and the work of educational advocates this group is finally being noticed. They are no longer anonymous. In New York we had a court decision that we were still responsible for educating the students who didn't make it through high school in four years but before this specially-designed program we really didn't have anything appropriate to offer those students. They need a school of their own.
Q: How do you suggest other interested communities start a school like Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day?
What you need first identify the students aged 17-21 who are under served by the educational system. You need some champions among the community boards, the guidance counselors and social workers and other community leaders and make your case for the school. You need to locate a facility that's close to employment and close to transportation so night and day students have easy access to work and to school. Once the school is established then you need to getting the word out as if marketing a product.
Then you need a social support net, which you build through a non-profit or friends-of group so that you can get the non tax-levied dollars you'll need for the additional services into the program. The modern principal has to be entrepreneurial like a college president or a prep school administrator. You you can't just rely on tax-payer money. That's why we founded our nonprofit partner. Already we've helped start schools like Manhattan Night and Day in Boston and Denver.