Charissa Fernandez is not a teacher, but as the leader of The After-School Corporation, which oversees educational programs throughout the city, one might say she has thousands of pupils. NY1’s Budd Mishkin speaks with Fernandez for this One on 1 report.
You may not have heard of Charissa Fernandez, but her work affects thousands of parents of schoolchildren and crosses all socioeconomic boundaries in the city.
"This woman who is an investment banker sort of grabbed me and started talking to me, really like, ‘Well how do you figure it out? I don't know, I have a three year old. What should I do with her?,’” says Fernandez. “Everybody can relate to having this conversation about what are your kids doing after school."
Fernandez is the chief operating officer of a non-profit called The After-School Corporation, or TASC, an organization that funds and monitors a series of K-12 after-school programs throughout the city.
The organization's goals include creating a greater connection between school day and after school learning, and helping to train after-school staff.
Perhaps it's ironic that Fernandez made her name in education, who says, "I just don't think I was a particularly good teacher."
"I really don't have a creative bone in my body,” says Fernandez. “So getting kids to write creative essays is really a struggle to me.”
She says there are currently 140,000 city children in publicly-funded after-school programs; TASC has served more than 250,000 kids during its ten-year existence.
Fernandez says the idea is to supplement what happens during the school day in art, academics, sports and community, and not just be a late afternoon baby sitting service.
"From our perspective of what's important is that after-school for poor kids doesn't only become about remediation,” says Fernandez. “We want to make sure that after school for all kids has the enriching activities."
Her professional work takes place at TASC's office in Times Square. But the teaching moments extend to Fernandez's home, where she and her husband are raising two young children in the Castle Hill section of the Bronx.
"It wasn't intentional, like we want to be able to see the projects from our backyard, but it was intentional that we wanted to stay in New York City,” says Fernandez. “One of the things I like about New York City is that you get the opportunity to interact with people who come from different backgrounds.”
“And it was really important to us that our kids grow up with people who come from different backgrounds and that they appreciate what we have here,” continues Fernandez. “And they understand not everybody has a backyard to run around in."
The field of education has never been considered a ticket to fame and fortune, but Crain's New York Business put Fernandez in its issue about rising business stars, the “Forty Under 40” issue, much to the surprise of an old friend.
"He was like, ‘You know, you were the last person I expected to see in this,’” says Fernandez. “Just because he knows that I'm in education and didn't expect Crain's to be profiling somebody who was in education, non-profit."
Even as Fernandez has established herself as one of the young movers and shakers in the world of New York education, she says her family is still not thoroughly convinced.
"To this day, people in my family don't fully understand what I do, or [ask] why I'm not a lawyer,” says Fernandez. “My mother still says every now and then it's not to late you know. You can still apply to medical school.”
Fernandez displays an easy laugh and a sunny disposition, but she also has a seriousness of purpose, reflected in her aspirations back in high school.
“Myself and a couple of other nerds in my class talked about, well, there was an accounting firm and also a law firm that we talked about,” she says. “School was something serious, not a place where you go and act silly."
Her deep respect for education came primarily from her mother.
Her parents divorced when Fernandez was young, and she was raised by a single mother in the upstate town of Cornwall, where there few students and teachers of color.
"My mom always said, ‘You have to be, you have to work that much harder. You have to be that much better because you're not held to the same standard,’” says Fernandez.
For much of the year, Fernandez was surrounded by mostly white people, but each summer, when she visited family in Jamaica, she was surrounded by mostly black people. Those experiences left an indelible imprint.
"I was seeing people who looked like me who were successful, who were running businesses, who were getting an education. I never questioned whether that was for me,” says Fernandez.
She says many of her old friends' parents still marvel at her story.
"’Oh, it's amazing that Charissa, she grew up with a single mom and she made it to Harvard,’” says Fernandez, imitating family friends. “And for me at the time it didn't seem so remarkable because that was just always what my mom expected of me.”
Her family's experience in the British educational system in Jamaica led to some confusion and bragging.
"When you apply to college, you really are applying for a professional school also,” says Fernandez. “When I get into Harvard, for years they told everybody, ‘Oh, Charissa goes to Harvard Law.’ And I kept telling them, ’I'm not in law school.’”
After Harvard, Fernandez ran a summer and weekend program at Summerbridge, a Riverdale County day school that was designed to offer academic enrichment to mostly working-class children from the Bronx and Washington Heights.
She also taught ninth-grade English at the school to an entirely different type of student.
"Everybody's going to their weekend home, their summer home, or going to, you know some private island for spring break,” says Fernandez. “It definitely was a challenge, but I was fortunate to be there at a time there was a number of faculty of color and they provided a really strong network. “
She knew her strength lay in administration, not teaching. And now in her job at TASC, she administers programs designed to help all types of kids all around New York.
The idea that teaching shouldn't stop at 3 p.m. is nothing new, but sometimes the public grossly misunderstands Fernandez’s work.
“People think that we are just a recreation program for kids after school,” says Fernandez. "As much progress as we've made, we still have a lot of work to do to convince the broader public about the importance of after-school."
But on more optimistic days, Fernandez remembers how her mother exposed her to education and opportunities early on.
It's a reality she's now trying to create for thousands of New York kids.
"We live in this great city where there's so many resources and so many professions,” says Fernandez. “Everything is going on here. And so many kids in New York City public schools don't have access to it. They have no idea what's out there and waiting for them and I think that [TASC] really is a place that they can get a taste of it."