worked many jobs as a boxing coach to psychotherapists, but he was also a dedicated youth worker. Coach, as most of the youth he worked with called him, believed that all kids, regardless of if they were drop-outs, drug users, or youthful offenders, were not loving or feeling loved. Coach made this his mission to turn these young lives around whether it was in the boxing ring, on the basketball court, or in a classroom.
Given his coaching and teaching tactics, it seemed like he would be a natural in school, but this was not the case. His teachers in high school told him he was educationally inadequate and especially weak in any language talent. They said the only way for him to achieve a high school diploma would be to switch to a vocational school.
He eventually enrolled in the army where they sent him to West Germany. There, he learned German in less than a year and became a command staff German translator.
Despite all his success within the army, Fernandez still didn’t see himself as intelligent. He ran into his high school coach who questioned why he wasn’t in college and promptly took him to the admissions office for the University of New York.
After graduation, he worked as an industrial arts teacher and later a guidance counselor. He met his wife at this time and they had four kids. Needing extra income, Fernandez started working at a drop-in center for teenagers, nicknamed The Cage. Many of the kids who attended were described as hard to reach, alienated, or hostile.
Fernandez had been a previous Golden Gloves boxer. He used this to launch a boxing program at The Cage. This program endured many decades. After this program, for the next three decades, he created EduCage, the first true alternative High School in Westchester County. This school worked toward giving youth a chance to succeed in life. Coach had one of the highest graduation rates in the county.
At EduCage, Coach implemented the first in-school Infant Care Center in New York so that students with infants would still be able to attend school. He also added a program called Cage Drug Prevention Center, which was the first drug treatment program in Westchester County. For Coach, there was no obstacle too large to overcome to ensure that his students would succeed. He served as the Executive Director for 26 years.
He emphasized the school philosophy of “this is a cooperative effort where everyone pulls together.” He made them feel accepted rather than approved. There was no dress code, just a behavior code where students could not come under the influence of alcohol or drugs.
His daughter recalls times where he would bring students into their house for dinner to show love for a student that was struggling. All the teachers at EduCage showed interest in the students. One even spent hours on the phone helping a student apply for college. They helped students become successful in many areas such as fashion, graphic design, performing arts, nursing, and more.
Quote from a Student
You started Educage, in which you have helped hundreds of people like me to get their high school diploma, and furthering their education. Your love and caring have rubbed off on most of us you touch. Because of the love and dedication you showed the youths in past and present, a lot of your ex youths are now in the field of youth counselors.
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