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Liberty LEADS

Liberty LEADS at Bank Street College is a New York City-based dropout prevention and college access program that has served over 1500 students between 5th and 12th grade since 1989. Founded to empower at-risk and underrepresented youth, our program makes an impact in the lives of students every day by helping them attain higher education, embrace leadership engagement, and create a positive future for themselves and others.

Our Mission

To provide underserved youth with access to the resources necessary to realize their potential and make positive contributions to society.

Our Students

The majority of our students are children of color and come from low-income familes in Harlem, Washington Heights, and the South Bronx:

  • 96% are eligible for free/reduced price school meals
  • 68% Latino, 23% African-American/Black, 2% Asian, 4% Multiracial, and 3% White
  • 68% come from households where English is not the main language spoken
  • 9% are current or former English Language Learners (ELLs)
  • 18% have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP)

Research shows that disadvantaged youth face challenges that can impede their academic success, social-emotional development, on-time high school graduation, and ability to succeed in college and career.1  For nearly three decades, our program has worked to successfully address these risk factors.

Students in our program graduate from high school at higher rates than their peers. In 2016, 100% of Liberty LEADS high school seniors graduated on time, compared to the 65% graduation rate among Black and Latino students in New York City. In addition to graduating high school, many Liberty LEADS students matriculate into college—in 2016, 94% of them were admitted and started college. Many of our students are the first in their families to attend an institution of higher education.

Our Success

Liberty LEADS students:

  • Stay with us: Our program has maintained a 92% retention rate since 2004.
  • Graduate: Since 2004, 94% of our students have graduated from high school on time.
  • Matriculate into college: An average of 88% of our students have matriculated since 2004.
  • Complete college: 57% of our students have completed college, while 15% are still in school.

This data holds true even for students who historically struggle. For example, in 2003, Liberty LEADS was retaining just one-third of our young men of color. Since then, our program has increased our male retention rate from 36% in 2003 to an average of 94% over the last five years (2011 through 2015). Those same students have seen significant success in graduating from high school and entering college.

In 2009, Liberty LEADS was evaluated by the Goldman Sachs Foundation and the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Their evaluation, published by the Lumina Foundation, described Liberty LEADS as “a pioneering college preparatory initiative for talented students from selected urban parochial high schools in New York City... [whose] success is due to its unique approach in the world of after-school programming, in that high-achieving adolescents need more than academic skills to become successful adults.”2

Our Program

Most students enter Liberty LEADS in 5th, 7th, or 9th grade and continue through high school graduation. Students attend our program several days during the week as well as regularly on Saturdays, and also have access to our summer camp programming. Over 55% of our students are referred to us on the basis of academic challenges and are directed toward Liberty LEADS to receive the support they need to thrive as learners and reach their full potential.

Program Highlights:

  • Social-emotional: Promotes the social and emotional development of our students and equips them with the skills they need to be effective problem-solvers, communicate their needs efficiently, and build leadership skills.
  • College preparation: Offers college tours, financial aid workshops, college admission advisement, transition workshops, and one- on-one support to ensure students are pursuing schools that best meet their needs and interests.
  • Leadership: Inspires students to think critically about issues that affect them and their communities, empowering them to find their voices and encouraging them to take on leadership roles in their communities that make a difference.
  • Social justice: Responds to our students’ lived experiences by allowing them to participate in writing classes, seminars, and counseling groups to discuss current events relating to social justice and write/workshop essays on topics of discussion.
  • STEM: Engages students in project-based courses that expand content knowledge and build enthusiasm for STEM concepts while remediating skill deficits.

Our Model

Liberty LEADS provides an alternative learning environment that helps students achieve success as learners. Our activities and resources enhance the social skills, emotional well being, cognitive skills, and academic performance of our students and reduce their risk of engaging in negative behavior.

Perhaps most importantly, our students develop ongoing, stable relationships with caring adults. Research shows that when a child is able to establish a relationship with at least one caring adult, they have “support for healthy development and learning.”3

At Liberty LEADS, each student in our program is assigned an advisor who tracks academic progress and social-emotional growth over several years and ultimately becomes someone the student can count on. The advisor meets with the student and his/her family to identify their strengths as well as areas in which they need support. Advisors frequently attend school meetings, IEP meetings, and parent-teacher conferences alongside parents and primary caregivers.

In addition to support from adults, Liberty LEADS encourages students to support and learn from one another. Building relationships with peers and hearing about their challenges and triumphs at home and in school helps them connect deeply with one another, avoid feelings of isolation, and build social-emotional competence.

The final crucial component of our model is family involvement. We acknowledge that the only way we are able to work with students effectively is if they participate regularly in program activities and make the most of our resources. Students’ families are our best allies in this regard and are essential to our efforts over the course of a student’s time with us.


1Nagaoka, J., Farrington, C.A., Ehrlich, S.B., and Heath, R.D. (2015). Foundations for Young Adult Success: A Developmental Framework. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Consortium on School Research.

2Millett, C.M. and Nettles, M.T. (2009). Developing High-Potential Youth Program: A Return On Investment Study for U.S. Programs. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

3Bernard, M.E. (1995). Improving student motivation and school achievement: A professional development program for teachers, special educators, school administrators and pupil service personnel. Ontario, Canada: Hindle & Associates.