NEW YORK CITY, August 19 – Putting one’s own kids through high school and college is tough, both financially and mentally, but imagine putting hundreds through it and in your spare time.
For Michael Stern ’60, what began as on-the-side charity giving has become a full-time job.
Since selling his family’s fragrance business in 1989, Stern has contributed to established organizations which offer financial and academic support to New York City public school children. He now contributes through his own organization.
“Public education in New York City is awful – a travesty. You have to start to help some of the youngsters – the need is so great,” Stern said. “There is a tremendous reservoir of volunteer help and interest; but so many people are interested in leading their lives and don’t have the time to tap in.”
Recent budget cuts, growing financial responsibility and a decrease in state and city funding have put much strain on the public schools, often forcing them to cut programs not mandatory for graduation.
Stern said he and his organization, the Graduate Achievement Program, have stepped in to fill the voids created by the cuts by offering tutoring, mentoring and extracurricular programs beginning in the ninth grade at New York public high schools.
Currently, the program is in its fourth year at the Martin Luther King Jr. High School on the Upper West side of Manhattan and is in its second year at the Louis Brandeis High School, further uptown.
Stern first contributed through the nationally recognized I Have a Dream Foundation, which chooses an eighth-grade class and follows its progress throughout high school, eventually helping to pay for class members’ college education.
Stern started his own organization in 1989, because he was unsatisfied with the decentralized nature of the foundation’s program. Although the kids began together as a group when chosen, many went on to different high schools, scattering the resources of the foundation.
Stern said he thought the program should begin in the ninth grade so that students are in the same area and school and can support one another throughout high school.
Since its beginning, the program has helped approximately 250 children at the two schools, which are composed entirely of black and Hispanic children because of “de facto segregation,” according to Stern.
“The problem is we see [public schooling] as outsiders because we’ve had limited exposure. We tend to think the majority of these kids are bad kids: they don’t study, they get in trouble all the time,” Stern said.
“We find that there’s maybe 10 or 15 percent element of that … maybe it’s 20 percent; but there’s a large component of these students who have aspirations of making something out of themselves, but they have no opportunity to expose themselves to the world and the benefits many of us have.”
In the past two years, Stern has added a summer job program to his organization to help place participating students in paying jobs in the city. The program placed seven students last year and 25 this year.
In addition to providing counselors at the schools to tutor and advise, Stern also takes students to different cultural events such as operas, Broadway shows and baseball games.
Last year, Stern sent 15 students to the Princeton Review Course to study for the Scholastic Aptitude Test. He also started a book club at Brandeis High School.
“I get a lot of satisfaction seeing kids turned on,” Stern said with a smile.
However, Stern is not without disappointment.
He said his job is made harder by the cultural and economic difficulties that many of the students live with everyday — parents themselves are often reluctant to participate because they are jealous of the attention their children are getting or they do not speak English.
“There’s a lot of frustration,” he said. “Sometimes we expect too much from them – we apply standards which aren’t fair.”
Stern is the sole supporter of the program; though he is often faced with economic strains, inevitable mishaps and disappointments, Stern says he is determined to continue with the program.
Stern is also thinking of expanding it to the college level as the
first group of students he sponsored enter their senior year of high school.
He is now embarking on a fund raising effort to help with the program and has contacted the Dartmouth Alumni Association of New York City, Dean James Breeden of the Tucker Foundation, New York City Comptroller Elizabeth Holtzman and the President of the Class of 1960 to enlist their aid and help tap the into the “tremendous reservoir of volunteer help and interest.”
Stressing that this is not just a local problem, Stern hopes to follow the lead of the Princeton Project 55 and is presently creating a proposal.
The Princeton Project 55 was a program instituted at the 35th reunion of Princeton University’s class of 1955 to combine the resources of the University and its graduates to contribute to the solution of basic social problems.
Stern said he has met with the founders of the program and is trying to put one together at Dartmouth for his 35th reunion in two years.
After graduating from Dartmouth, Stern went on to the Amos Tuck School of Business and later New York University’s Law School.
Speaking of the state of public education, Stern said that at its current rate, the children are getting no constructive education, calling it a “repetitive cycle of failure.”
Through his organization, Stern said he hopes to reverse this downward trend.
“What disturbs me the most is a growing de facto segregation among students – caused by the bonding together of ethnic groups,” he said. “They’re not exposing themselves to one another and it’s happening at an earlier and earlier age.”