Upper left, Leslie Fernandez "Coach" as Director of Lincoln Farm summer camp with campers and counselor Tom Chapin, lower right on guitar, circa summer 1969
Many of the kids were described as hard-to-reach, alienated and hostile. Even Fernandez’s reflection about his first months working at Cage supported the description. His rueful remark: he wasn’t an animal tamer, after all.
Not an animal tamer, but definitely a fighter. Fernandez had been a Golden Gloves boxer. The first Cage program he launched, which endured for decades, was in boxing. It was a smart choice, channeling the energies of many hostile youths.
From that small beginning, and feeling his way all the way for the next three decades, Leslie Fernandez created EduCage, the first true alternative high school in New York’s Westchester County. It gave at-risk teenagers a meaningful chance to succeed in life. Significantly, the school that “Coach” Fernandez created also enjoyed one of the highest graduation rates in New York’s Westchester County.
What made the EduCage difference?
Leslie Fernandez always remembered his parents’ unconditional love and his former coach’s confidence in his abilities. Both made a positive difference in his life. He also remembered the cross of that “loser” feeling in high school when not a single teacher looked deeper. Those experiences informed his work in creating EduCage.
But there is more. There was Leslie “Coach” Fernandez himself.
As described by everyone who knew him, Leslie Fernandez, a man’s man, was also a mixture of compassion, empathy and strength. “Coach led me down a road of love and discipline,” says musician and music producer Steve Luongo. “Today when I work with other musicians, I try always to apply the lessons I learned from Coach to make them, and me, better.”
Woman with Cat sculpture by Dr. Fernandez, also an accomplished sculptor.
Author Devra Hall Levy used to walk across town from her high school, one of those typical one-size-fits-all curricula schools, to be at EduCage instead. “Coach found teachers like him: they cared about us,” she says. In addition, the small classes ensured that each student received individual attention. “All the EduCage teachers knew you, really knew you,” Levy recalls. “No one glossed over your problems, and some of us had big problems.”
Indeed, the one feeling mentioned again and again by former students, especially the self-described troubled ones, is that they felt seen and understood by Coach. For many, it was their first experience of real caring from an adult.
At the same time, former students remember that rules, discipline and expectations were part of the mix. “You knew that he loved you unconditionally,” one former student recalls. “He also had unconditional respect for each one of us, which helped us to play by the rules.”
Coach, wife Natalie and son Richie at Coach's 80th birthday party, April 2007. Coach passed away four days later.
Coach engendered another feeling that helped students to play by the rules. They felt he was there for them. And so was every teacher he hand-picked to teach at EduCage.
Individually and together, Coach and his teachers focused on helping students uncover their passions and interests. This led to unexpected career choices, from fashion and graphic design to the mechanical and performing arts to nursing, education and law.
For EduCage students, teachers’ interest and concern for them was a given. One recalls a teacher spending hours on the phone helping him apply to college. Another, who became a senatorial legislative aide before applying to law school, traces his interest in “bigger” things to the particular influence of one of the special EduCage teachers.
Not every student’s life turned into a success story. But as one observer commented: it’s remarkable that so many did.
Awards and Recognitions
Mr. Fernandez received many awards in his lifetime. Some of them include:
- Distinguished Service Award
- Brotherhood Award
- Marjorie Margolis Award
- First Citizen of Westchester Award
- Who's Who in Education
Formal recognition of his work included:
- Proclamation by the County Executive of Westchester County: April 30, 1991 Les Fernandez Recognition
- Appointment by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo as Advisor to the committee for Alternative Education programs
Read Devra Hall Levy's Final Farewell to Coach here
About the author
Nona Aguilar is an award-winning journalist specializing in family health. In addition to articles that have appeared in major women’s magazines, she has written three books, including The New No-Pill, No-Risk Birth Control on natural family planning.