LEAP of Faith: Teaching and Mentoring at P.S. 132

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As a teacher in a crowded New York elementary school, Sara Shenkan C’00 was frustrated that she couldn’t give her students enough one-on-one time. So she turned to fellow Penn alumni for a little help. She got a lot, and what resulted is a mentoring project called the Leadership Empowerment Achievement Program: LEAP.

Now the students, third-through-fifth-graders at New York’s P.S. 132, get postcards from Paris, perform science experiments with an engineer, and take field trips on Broadway. “It’s been amazing for my kids,” says Shenkan. 

After volunteering in a West Philadelphia mentoring program during her time at Penn, Shenkan decided to join Teach for America. Fluent in Spanish, she was placed in a predominantly Dominican community in New York’s Washington Heights section for her two-year teaching assignment. She first called on friends for help in starting a small mentoring program, then sent out an e-mail to a larger group of area alumni. 

“I received an overwhelming response,” Shenkan says. “Of the 54 mentors who currently serve in LEAP, over 60 percent are Penn graduates, while over 80 percent of the mentors heard about LEAP from a Penn connection.” One is 13-year-old Elizabeth Doty (daughter of Penn trustee and LEAP sponsor Lee Spelman Doty W’76), who saved her own money to donate to the organization.

The mentors get together with their students at least two Saturdays a month—once for a field trip and once for a daylong program of science experiments, reading, and educational board games.

“I was new in the city, and I thought that it would be a good way to meet people and do something great for the community,” writes LEAP volunteer Melissa Tamez EAS’02. “At least once a month I get together with them and another mentor and his kids and we take them out somewhere. So far we’ve been to Central Park, the movies, and bowling.”

Though sometimes it’s hard for her to tell if the program is “making a difference,” Tamez recalls an incident that convinced her of its importance: “One day we made scrapbooks by covering notebooks with construction paper and decorating the cover. Elizabeth (one of my girls) drew a heart on the cover and wrote ‘My Best Friends.’ Then she put my name and Rosie’s name (my other girl) in the heart. I was really touched.”

Shenkan began graduate school in public policy at Harvard this fall, but LEAP’s work continues—with the help of a new coordinator, a largely Penn steering committee, and Yngrid Gonzalez C’03, who was recently hired by P.S. 132 as a teacher.

Though the program’s $10,000 budget was written into the school budget, LEAP is working to secure outside funding through grants for 2005, Shenkan says. “School budgets are always so precarious. Outside funding would allow us to always thrive regardless of the school and city politics.”


LEAP is still looking for mentors. Interested alumni should contact Shenkan at <[email protected]>.

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