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Elliot S. Jaffe: Teachers College is Close to My Heart

It was an atypical moment for Elliot S. Jaffe, businessman and philanthropist. He was a little unsure of how his presentation would be received.

The occasion was a reception for Teachers College scholarship recipients. TC President Arthur Levine had asked him to address the group and Jaffe came to the gathering dressed in the standard corporate uniform: a dark business suit.

"I faced maybe 45 people dressed in jeans," he recalled. "It was perfectly appropriate attire for college students but I wondered whether I could connect with them."

Then he said, something clicked when he started talking about his youth. "I'm talking to you this evening as an ex-poor, ethnic, minority kid," he told them. "What made the difference for me was education."

Suddenly whatever barrier existed between the corporate executive and the college students vanished. It became clear that Jaffe-chairman and chief executive officer of Dress Barn-and the graduate students had one very important thing in common: they were committed to making a difference in the lives of poor, inner-city children.

Jaffe grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, at a time when many doors of financial opportunity were closed to him because of his ethnicity. That changed after a stint in the U.S. Army during World War II made it possible for him to go to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania on the G.I. Bill.

After graduating from Wharton in 1949, he went to work for R.H. Macy where he eventually became a merchandising manager. In 1962, he was ready for a new challenge and launched Dress Barn with his wife, Roslyn. Today, the chain has 698 stores in 43 states.

His skill as a businessman has earned him accolades from his peers.

Business awards adorn a wall in his office at Dress Barn's headquarters in Suffern, New York. But they do not dominate the office, which is a reflection of the man who is as interested in philanthropy as he is in business.

Over the years, he has given to his alma mater, the arts, medical research, health education and environmental conservancy. Then in the late 1980s, he was introduced to Teachers College and a fledgling program-the Peace Corps Fellows.

The goal of the program, which is 13 years old, is to provide urban schools with qualified, effective and committed teachers in critical subject areas. The program offers former Peace Corps volunteers financial aid toward a master's degree and a permanent teaching certificate in exchange for a commitment to teach in New York City. The Fellows spend about two years as full-time New York City school teachers and as part-time Teachers College students.

The young Peace Corps returnees were eager to teach, said Jaffe. But they didn't have training or teaching certificates. The New York City Board of Education was ready to hire and Teachers College was ready to train them, Jaffe said. "The only thing lacking was funding."

That's where Jaffe and a few other benefactors stepped in. And Jaffe got a lot of satisfaction from his gift and from his occasional meetings with the Fellows.

After one of his visits to the College, said Jaffe: "I remember one of them cornered me outside a classroom. He told me that he had a group of students who had never been outside of the Bronx. He asked me for $210 to hire a substitute teacher for the day and to rent a van so he could take the kids to the country.

"I thought that was a buy I couldn't resist," Jaffe said. "He took them to a state preserve and they spent a night under the stars."

Later, Jaffe said: "I got 15 to 18 thank you notes from the children. One of them was from a Hispanic boy who wrote: ‘Next to Jesus, I love you best.' It takes so little to make a difference in an inner-city child's life."

Eventually the federal government took notice of the program and started funding it, said Jaffe. So he shifted his attention-and his financial gifts-to a new scholarship program at Teachers College for full-time minority students committed to teaching in urban schools. This semester, his contribution will support 19 graduate students at Teachers College.

One of them, Sean-Andrew Cyrillo, said the scholarship made it possible for him to continue work on his M.Ed. in Reading and Learning Disabilities. "I was actually amazed that I got it," he said of the scholarship. Cyrillo, who is of Portuguese descent, is currently working for the New York City Board of Education as a reading specialist. He is assigned to work with children in private schools, primarily in Washington Heights and Harlem.

When he completes his program, Cyrillo said that he will continue to work in urban schools. "I grew up with a single mother. And being a minority myself, I sympathize with those kids," he said. "It's really satisfying working with them."

Similarly, Jaffe has found working with Teachers College satisfying. Over the years, his relationship with the College grew to the point that he was asked-and agreed-to join the Teachers College Trustees in 1997.

His goals for Teachers College for the coming decade include: continuing to be the number one graduate school of education and taking advantage of technology to link up with superintendents and teachers. "Right alongside that," he said he would like to see the College "expand distance learning to continue toward the goals Arthur (Levine) and the faculty have set for themselves."

His latest major gift to the College has not been targeted for a specific program yet, he said. But he is interested in directing some money to a program that would serve first-year teachers, a goal that is shared by the College's teacher-education faculty.

"We lose so many young teachers after the first year," Jaffe said. "They have no support groups, no mentors. Wouldn't it be wonderful if they had a support mechanism."

Whatever program is ultimately established will continue his effort to improve urban education-a goal that meshes perfectly with the TC mission. Perhaps that is why Jaffe said: "Teachers College is very close to my heart."

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