Volume 21, Number 16 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Aug. 29 - Sept. 4, 2008

Back to School

Downtown Express photos by Jefferson Siegel

Students from the High School Economics and Finance on the New York Stock Exchange trading floor after they helped Sandy Weill, bottom center, ring the opening bell. Weill is the head of a private foundation that arranges internships and other support for the school.

Wall Street’s masters take high school under their wings

By James S. Woodman

A few years ago, walking through Midtown discomforted Tiffani Dawson, a high school student from Queens Village. Having occasionally gone to the business-minded area to visit a relative, Tiffani had neither the know-how nor necessity for dressing sleekly.

“I felt so out of place then because everyone around there was so well dressed. I felt like an outsider,” Tiffani said.

Yet now, self-consciousness no longer plagues Tiffani when on Park Avenue. For, this marked her second summer as an intern at high-profile financial firms, and dressing the part. This summer she interned at KPMG

“Now, I feel that I fit in here, that I belong,” Tiffani said in an interview in the KPMG’s Midtown office earlier this summer.

As these kinds of internships can be difficult for even college grads to attain, they are not only available, but also required for Tiffani and her classmates at the High School of Economics and Finance, located on Trinity Pl. in Lower Manhattan.

As America gets ready to send its youth back to school, there is no shortage of criticism of the public school system. Public schools, some contend, offer few incentives for learning and even fewer resources for students’ future advancement up the socio-economic ladder.

Yet Michael Stanzione, the economics high school principal, thinks his school could well offer a model to overcome America’s educational doldrums. Through a privately organized finance curriculum and internship programs, many of his students graduate with two high-profile corporate internships under their belt.

The High School of Economics and Finance is public and although the school’s principal funding comes from the city and state, its program extends unusually deep into the private sector, mainly through the National Academy Foundation.

A private organization to promote and facilitate “rigorous, career-themed curricula,” the foundation provides the High School of Economics and Finance as well as other public schools all across the world, with supplements to usual public school curriculum. Schools in partnership with the foundation receive its finance curriculum, teacher training, and, most distinctively, a series of public-private partnerships between the school and close-by corporations that provide its students their guaranteed internships.

Founded in 1982 by Sandy Weill, now the chairman emeritus of Citigroup, N.A.F.’s mission was originally to kindle interest in Wall St. among New York public high school students. The foundation, which is still headed by Weill, pushed for the career-themed economics high school to be built, succeeding in 1993 with the school’s completion.

The school is a federally-designated Title 1 school, denoting that over 65 percent of its students come from families whose reported income falls below the poverty line.

While bringing Title 1 schools up to desirable college enrollment standards can usually be a challenge, Stanzione is proud his school’s seniors latest numbers: 97 percent enrollment in either a two year or four year college.

Stanzione believes the school’s internships offer not only a motivation for students to do their work, but can also translate directly to their professional success once in the work world. And there is also the added perk of networking.

“Aside from the experience the interns develop relationships with mentors at these places,” Stanzione said. “They will usually continue to provide the student with knowledge related to their professional interest. We owe so much to our private partnerships like Citibank.”

“Knowing people is everything in this business,” said Akbar Hosein, a high school student from Richmond Hill Queens. He interned at Alan D. Rosenburg accounting firm in Midtown. “I’ve been getting peoples’ business cards for two years now. There are people who like me and that care about me. These are the people that I like to meet.”

At her internship this summer, Tiffani has also developed some important social networks. She has become friends with the student whom with she shares a cubicle and works together on doing Internet research for potential future clients.

“Networking is definitely big,” Tiffani said. “You are nobody if you know nobody.”

In addition to the confidence boost that social networking can provide, many of the interns say that handling the duties that the internships have trusted to them has given them boosts in personal confidence.

“I feel that I am now capable of handling larger amounts of responsibility. Like having a mature job,” Akbar said. “The internships are like school in the sense that they teach you things that you can carry away and into the workplace.”

Side benefits aside, the main goal of the school’s internship program is to gain professional experience.

“The internships gave me a taste of the corporate world, and, I have to say, I don’t mind it,” said Joseph Alvardo, a senior who interned at Smith and Barney. “To be honest, I’d be lost without that experience.”

Tiffani, who enrolled in the high school without knowing about the internship programs, thinks the curriculum and internships have given her a big advantage over many other students.

“I mean, education is ridiculously important, you need it to live a good life, but you also need professional experience if you want to make a living,” Tiffani said. “With the internships, you get such a direct opportunity to build such a good resume.”

Each Wednesday, the school holds what they call, “dress for success Wednesdays,” in which students come to school dressed in their most spiffy business formal attire.

“Dress for success really brings out the best in me,” Akbar said. “Dressing well is essential in the business world. Now, when I apply for a job I will know what to wear.”

“The attire itself just gives you so much more confidence,” Tiffani said.

In May, some students visited the New York Stock Exchange trading floor and helped ring the Big Board’s opening bell and after a panel discussion organized by the N.A.F. Several Wall St. executives weighed in on the importance of building these skills in American public schools.

“To compete in the global market, we must get college enrollment up, we must keep moving future generations up the economic ladder,” said Win Bischoff, chairperson of Citigroup. “Without programs like N.A.F., we could be facing a bleak future in this country.”

Claudette Gomez, a recent graduate, is going to Vassar this semester on a scholarship, and credits the internships with advancing her to the point where she now stands.

“My internship was the first time I was not treated like a kid. If I messed up, they told me,” Claudette said. “Now I’m far more independent.”

Claudette hopes to go into corporate law after graduating from college.

Tiffani says that her future career plans have been influenced by the school. She wants to go into business of some kind.

Though English is her favorite subject, Tiffani is looking forward to majoring in finance or business administration, and minor in journalism.

When asked why she will not major in her favorite subject she said, “doing the starving artist thing is cool and all, but I want to make a living.”




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