February 11, 2001 | Meghan Mutchler Deerin, Chicago Tribune

Taking a gamble on a young New Yorker pays off for Manley Career Academy 

Leff knew she could help Manley's students — 96 percent of whom live below the poverty line — graduate and find their way to college and meaningful employment. She just wasn't certain how.

It was a tall order; at the time, fewer than 10 percent of the school's graduates went to college.

But after learning that the 30-year-old New Yorker had already founded a federally funded school-to-work initiative in Edgewater, directed an employment program for homeless and disadvantaged youth and counseled prostitutes, Manley Principal Katherine Flanagan decided to give Leff a chance.

I didn't even think I was going to graduate from high school till I came across Lila

She targeted Manley for the very reasons others might avoid it: It's a poorly performing school on academic probation, smack in the middle of one of the city's most violent neighborhoods. At Manley, Leff befriended students and involved them in the program she created: the Umoja Student Development Corp. She organized after-school clubs, field trips, college tours, leadership conferences and, what would become a cornerstone of the program, community service projects.

The first year, she and the students designed, rehabbed and sold a single-family home in North Lawndale, a neighborhood eager for decent housing. "It almost brought tears to my eyes," recalled 20-year-old Andre Smith, a former student who helped renovate the house. Like many of the kids Leff recruits, Smith was reluctant at first, but ultimately her genuineness won him over. "I didn't even think I was going to graduate from high school till I came across Lila," Smith said. "She gave me different options."

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