Eric Eisner is that teacher you feared, the instructor who set high expectations and believed his students would push themselves to meet them. He praises success, but doesn’t shy away from criticism. Maddening as the workload could be, he was the teacher whose class you appreciated most, since the challenge gave you a better sense of your own capabilities. Tough love, some might call it. “I’m rough, I’m abrasive and blunt,” Eisner says of his teaching style. “The thing in the jungle that bites.”
Eisner has no formal background in education. He came to it, by chance, as a second career. After graduating from New York’s Columbia Law School in 1973, he crossed coasts and entered the glitzy entertainment business in Los Angeles, working his way to the top spot as president of the David Geffen Company. Big paychecks bought a home in the city’s western hills, paid for his kids’ private school tuitions and allowed him to retire in his late forties.
Looking for a way to occupy his time outside of improving his golf game, Eisner was persuaded to get involved in a nonprofit in South Los Angeles, a low-income, predominantly Hispanic area. (It took some coaxing: “I had time, but I lacked the inclination to give it,” he confesses.) Eisner recalls not knowing what he could do for the families the nonprofit helped, but he wanted to meet the children to find out what made them tick. Partially, this was self-serving — he wanted to better understand his own children, whom he was losing in “the battle to pop culture” — but he also wanted to know why kids weren’t learning in school.
The roundabout answer to those questions led to the founding of Young Eisner Scholars (YES) in 1998, a group that took the “smart kids” out of regular classes for biweekly lessons on debate and language, helped them transfer to private, high-performing high schools and mentored them through college graduation and their first jobs.
YES has mobilized $50 million in financial aid and scholarships to fund its scholars’ tuition and underwrites college tours, application fees, summer programs and medical bills beyond a family’s budget. All that capital seems to have paid off. The scholars come from neighborhoods where two-thirds of students drop out of high school, but YES’s participants have been accepted to top-tier universities and won prestigious awards like the Fulbright, QuestBridge and Gates Millennium scholarships.
Eisner admits that YES was never founded with a long-term vision in mind. Instead, the group pivoted as they learned more, reacting with the critical thinking Eisner wants to see his kids develop. The program has found success in urban Los Angeles, Chicago and New York City, and this school year, it’s testing its worth in four schools in western North Carolina. (The expansion into Appalachia drastically increased the number of white children participating in YES.)
Justin Hicks, YES’s Appalachia program coordinator, says he spends much of his day in the car, driving 45 minutes to each school on one-lane switchbacked roads. A graduate of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., Hicks pitched the idea for a rural version of YES during his first phone interview with Eisner. In this role for less than a year (previously, he was an intern with the organization), Hicks sees cultural differences in what these children hope to be — youth saying they want to be carpenters and farmers when they grow up, instead of lawyers or doctors — but he doesn’t see a difference in their ambition, the way they learn or their intellect. For now, the program is waiting to see if children from rural backgrounds will express interest in attending first-rate schools far from home, like their first-generation immigrant, urban counterparts.
An essential part of YES’s strategy and the way Hicks runs his classrooms is with an emphasis on language. Typically in schools, children are judged by how they perform on tests. If they score well, they’re considered to be smarter. But once Eisner started prying into how much his students actually comprehend, he realized that they were often memorizing answers that would later appear on exams, rather than learning concepts.
In hour-long sessions during the school day, YES reverses the “I, We, You” model (the teacher demonstrates, the students practice with her aid, the kids do homework alone) into something closer to the Socratic method. There’s no instruction without student participation. In math lessons, this means that there are no equations, only word problems like “If two trains, 56 miles apart, leave stations at the same time…,” although the instructors often deliberately leave out the question. When learning vocabulary, flash cards are practically banned, because Eisner says, they often define words using other terms the kids barely understand. Instead, YES sessions involve personal discussion and debate over contemporary issues.
While its students are thriving, Eisner’s answer might not be a scalable solution to our nation’s failing public schools. For one, YES requires huge sums of cash, which bars it from assisting more than a few dozen students in any given city. And troubling for some is the fact that YES plucks only the best students — the talented tenth, to use W.E.B. DuBois’s words — out of the public school system, leaving the most troubled students behind.
Eisner, for his part, would agree with DuBois about elevating the most exceptional students from low-income backgrounds is a way to bring along the rest of the class. He updates DuBois’s 1903 essay with a modern spin. “We are an advertising agency for educational aspiration. The fact that a kid goes to Harvard or Yale or Stanford or Columbia, there’s a little perfume that goes with them when they come home from school. It might reach a friend or cousin,” he says. “We succeed when these kids become glamorously successful.”
Let’s fix this country together.