The Unlikely Reformer

  • 30th October 201230/10/12
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Eric Eisner ERIC EISNER SEEMS an improbable character to have become one of the great innovative—and philanthropic—forces in education today. As a teenager, he played drums in Greenwich Village clubs instead of getting a good night’s rest for school. After attending law school at Columbia, he moved to Los Angeles, where he turned himself into a movie and music mogul, becoming the president of the Geffen Company. As a Hollywood power broker, he made million-dollar deals and lunched with Tom Cruise, Tim Burton and Martin Scorsese. Everything he did, he says today, he did in order to make money— and for no other reason. He reveled in the lifestyle that his success allowed: Bob Dylan performed at his wedding to Lisa Eisner, a photographer and fashion editor who became one of Tom Ford’s muses; he bought a house in Bel-Air and sent his children to the prestigious Brentwood and Crossroads schools; having made enough money to retire in his late 40s, he looked forward to perfecting his golf game at the Bel-Air Country Club, which he had maneuvered energetically to get into. His life could not have been further removed from the poorest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, and yet he became the founder of a visionary organization known as the Young Eisner Scholars (YES). Strangely enough, he says, his glamorous life prepared him to do the work he does today. Situated in southwest L.A., YES identifies promising students in disadvantaged schools, helps develop their intellectual potential and finds places for them in the city’s best prep and magnet schools. What sets YES apart from other well-intentioned programs is the attention that goes into helping these students overcome poverty and poor schooling. All of Eisner’s energy is directed at figuring out how to make the kids feel a positive drive toward their futures. “To understand kids and how to make things glamorous to them, you have to have been a victim of glamour yourself,” he says. “You have to understand why a video game makes a kid want to win, but a teacher might not. If you want kids to realize their promise, you have to figure out how to make something seem aspirational to them.” Clearly something about Eisner’s formula is working: This fall, 67 YES kids will be enrolled at the nation’s most prestigious universities—among them, Yale, Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, USC and UC Berkeley. Through sheer force of will, Eisner and his organization have had a profound impact on the lives of L.A.’s disadvantaged, opening what the author Malcolm Gladwell, a champion of Eisner’s, has called an “underground railroad” out of the barrio. How was this unlikely partnership between under-performing public schools and a wealthy former music executive formed? A few years after Eisner retired from Geffen, his friend Dorothy Courtney pressed him to get involved with an organization that helps families in the Hawthorne and Lennox areas of Los Angeles. “Dorothy went to work on me a little bit, ‘You must have some time,’ and so on,” Eisner recalls. “I had time, but I had never, ever, ever done anything for anyone in my life. If there was no money in it, count me out. I wasn’t even on the student council. But I thought, Try it. So I said, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And she was clever enough to say, ‘If I tell you, you’ll stop doing it in six months. Why don’t you give it some thought?’ ” The next day, he told her what he had in mind: to meet the brightest kids in the worst school. “I told her, ‘I want to meet the smartest kids, the kids who are interested in building things, in physics,’ ” he says. “I want to see what’s going on between their ears.” The worst of the schools, Courtney told him, was Lennox Middle School. Housed in a grim, unassuming building near the Los Angeles airport, it had lost its high school due to budget cuts, and the dropout rate had soared to nearly 60 percent. To get to school, students had to cross gang lines. Eisner began meeting with a handful of kids at Lennox, without any clear picture of what he was doing other than listening. One of the first kids he met was Chris Bonilla, who graduated from Columbia University two years ago and now works for YES. Bonilla tells me that he first thought Eisner was there to discipline him. “He was just sitting there, and he had a printout of all my grades and information and he was like, ‘Why are you getting a B minus in social studies?’ I thought he was a school official who was pretty angry for some reason, so I walked away shook up.” Soon, Bonilla and Eisner were regularly meeting to talk, along with a handful of other kids. The Young Eisner Scholars is the outgrowth of one man’s natural curiosity, not a predetermined pedagogical philosophy. Its mission has evolved over time, as Eisner became aware of how he could be most helpful. That first year, he realized that the most difficult thing for these students was verbalizing their thoughts—not having complex thoughts, but expressing them. He encouraged the students to debate him and helped pay for them to attend summer school. When teachers at the Brentwood summer school approached Eisner to say that Bonilla, whom Eisner had sent there, would be a great addition to the high school, Eisner agreed to pay for his tuition. He began finding slots at top high schools for students graduating from Lennox. And Young Eisner Scholars was born.
Eisner describes himself as a third parent. This is education on a human level, not a theoretical one.
Today, YES serves students from the third grade through graduate school, though Eisner focuses on the pivotal upper-middle-school years: The kids are old enough for him to reliably evaluate their work ethic and their hunger for knowledge, but young enough that their minds are still growing rapidly. As in the past, he counsels the students, gauges their self-motivation and stability—a child who has a resilient personality and is willing to speak up, he’s quick to point out, is more likely to succeed—and gets to know their parents. If it seems like a good fit, he helps find a place for the student in an L.A. high school—usually private, but not always. In the majority of cases, the high schools themselves provide scholarships; today, schools that work with YES pay a small fee in order to meet the scholars and recruit them. (The organization helps pay for college once the scholars leave high school.) Eisner raises all the money for the YES budget in an ad hoc way: “sharpening his teeth” when someone asks him what he does at the kind of cocktail parties he used to dread. To private schools hungry for greater diversity, Eisner’s program is a gift: It screens the students beforehand and, once they’re admitted, offers additional support and counseling far beyond the school’s resources. The path from the barrio to Beverly Hills is not without its bumps. Roughly 60 percent of the YES kids live below the poverty line, and all kinds of unpredictable problems arise as they transition from Lennox or Buford to Brentwood and Harvard-Westlake. It’s not just culture shock, which the kids say is real, yet not as daunting as they had imagined, but also pragmatic issues: Their parents may not have the resources to get them to and from school, or understand how to apply for financial aid. Eisner, who grew up in Manhattan, the child of left-leaning parents who hosted fundraisers for Ethel and Julius Rosenberg (one of his earliest memories is of Paul Robeson singing) was never the smartest kid in the room, but he always wanted to get As and spent a lot of time studying how the smart kids learned.Today, he describes himself as “tough” and not the most “empathetic” person, but his bluntness is appealingly open and he speaks eloquently (and concretely) about strategies for learning.   The students clearly respond to him and appreciate his straight shooting. On the afternoon I visit Eisner in the YES offices, Andrew, a skinny, reserved eighth grader, sits with us. Andrew had recently been accepted to The Lawrenceville School in New Jersey, making this the first year YES will enroll students at boarding schools. As Eisner speaks, Andrew corrects him, or adds salient details, demonstrating a key trait Eisner looks for: a mind obsessed with accuracy. When I ask Andrew what the best thing about YES is, he pauses, then says, “I learned how to learn.” Eisner believes the students need to learn what he calls “literate thinking.” In Los Angeles, the middle-school curriculum is pegged to tests. Kids are expected to memorize material, but often don’t fully understand the broader concepts behind what they’re studying. As Andrew puts it, for two problems in a math class at Lennox, he would get a paragraph of notes; for one problem with Eisner, he gets several pages. Eisner tells me he thinks the fact that he wasn’t himself a “brainiac” made him more attentive to the question of how to learn; this is what he drives home in his meetings with the kids. Many of the YES students I meet with describe the process as “intimidating” and “scary,” but also express their respect for Eisner. His high standards have taken them further than they ever imagined. “You couldn’t just give the answer,” one student says, trying to explain what was so different about Eisner’s teaching. “You had to say why the answer was the way it was.” Though Eisner has no background in education, and not much of a formal philosophy, he understands that students in Bel-Air are taught how to internalize literate thinking—the ability to effectively communicate and bargain, and to extrapolate from particulars to universals—from an early age. In southwest L.A., the education system is turning out kids who are silent memorizers; as hungry as they may be for knowledge, there’s not much room for them to learn broad principles, let alone the social skills that are crucial to making one’s way in our entrepreneurial culture. In theory, the literate-thinking methodology isn’t all that different from an SAT prep course, which also teaches kids how to fathom the basic principles underlying all sorts of word problems. In practice, the difference lies in Eisner’s passion. This is education on a human level, not a theoretical one. EISNER DESCRIBES HIMSELF as a third parent, and his influence in the students’ lives reflects this. Having been told that one boy, Sebastian, wasn’t participating at recess, he met with him and noticed that his shoes were too big and the soles had worn away. So YES helped him buy new tennis shoes, and the boy started playing at recess again. Eisner has found himself buying eye-glasses for students whose parents couldn’t afford them. After getting reports that one scholar wasn’t doing his homework, he called the boy himself to find out what was going on, acting, as he puts it, “like a marine sergeant, blind to the nuances: ‘Why are you being negligent about your homework?’ ” It turned out that the boy had been nervously focused on an upcoming dance recital—he had not one but two solos. After seeing the boy dance—”Next to the other boys, he was Nureyev. And the joy!”—Eisner was reminded that measuring success in young students is always complex. While it could be argued that the program robs the public school system of its most talented students, the Lennox Middle School administration has been extremely supportive of Eisner’s mission, acknowledging that they do not always have the resources to serve their brightest kids. And it would take a stony heart not to be inspired by all that Eisner has managed to accomplish with just a five-person staff (including himself). One of these success stories is Diana Orozco, who graduated from the Brentwood School this year and was admitted to Yale. At the YES office, she explains that she’d been raised by a single mother with four kids—she is the oldest—who works as a cashier in a burger place. Her mother, who has been taking night classes and will graduate from high school herself this year, “is very excited about Yale,” she says. Although Eisner’s model may not, at first glance, appear scaleable, his success reminds us that innovation on a grass-roots level can be as important as revolutions in pedagogy. Eisner’s model is artisanal rather than commercial (in his 12 years running YES, he has worked with just 211 students), but it might be just what’s needed to inject schools with a hopeful, cooperative spirit—the kind of can-do attitude that leads to greater change. Next spring, in partnership with Columbia University, YES is planning to bring the program to New York City. On a Friday afternoon, Eisner and I have lunch at the Bel-Air Country Club with his assistant, Alina. As we eat, overlooking the golf course he once imagined playing on every day, Eisner speaks about some of the kids in the program and the many obstacles they’ve over- come. Now, YES helps its scholars find jobs, continuing to level the playing fields—one had just completed an internship at Morgan Stanley. “It’s a fascinating world when you get involved with all these kids,” Eisner muses. “It’s like they’re plants: You have to see where they’re growing, what they need.” Before getting up to leave the table (he and Alina are going to Brentwood to watch Diana and three other YES scholars graduate), he gestures at the vista before him, as if to invoke the distance between his own life and those of his students. Thanks to YES, perhaps that distance won’t always be so large.

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