In the March issue of Vanity Fair, Malcom Gladwell described Eric Eisner as the "DuBois of the barrio" and his foundation Young Eisner Scholars as "Eisner's underground railroad." For thirteen years now, Eisner has been plucking the most gifted students from the Lennox School District (Hawthorne, Inglewood, and LAX-adjacent) and funneling them into some of the city's most prestigious schools with scholarships: the Center for Early Education, John Thomas Dye, Crossroads, Brentwood School, and Harvard-Westlake. Now the first crop of students Eisner started with are beginning to graduate college. Chris Bonilla, the very first scholar, just graduated from Columbia and is giving Y.E.S. a year of service before law school starts. Other students have won prestigious higher education scholarships like the Fulbright, the Gates Millenium scholarship, and the Quest-Bridge. And it's all because, as Gladwell put it, "12 years ago Eric Eisner sat down with a handful of seventh-graders in a forgotten corner of Los Angeles and realized that they deserved the same opportunities as their counterparts in Beverly Hills."
HP: Most people look at the problem and then walk away, overwhelmed. What made you realize you had to start Young Eisner Scholars?
EE: When somebody said to me, "would you be willing to give some time to an organization that works in the barrios with families?" I said, "I wouldn’t know what to do with families. I don’t really have any social working skills and I'm not necessarily the most empathetic person in the world." Instead, I told them I would be interested in meeting the smartest kids in this neighborhood and finding out what makes them tick. What are the ingredients in creating these inexplicably smart kids that seem to be sort of growing up smart despite all the odds? It was through meeting these kids that one thing led to another.
HP: What is the methodology that the Young Eisner Scholars use to identify gifted students?
EE: We’ll track a kid for two to three years and look at how he does on standardized tests. Once we find that there’s a student who is consistently scoring in the top 3-5% in the nation on one of those tests, then we'll meet the kid. Then we'd check in with their teachers to see what experience they've had with the children and whether it's consistent with the testing. The children have to show certain qualities that are essential if they’re going to be happy and successful in going to a challenging school: curiosity, courage, confidence, and the ability to handle not only the academic challenges that lie ahead of them, but the social challenges as well. Then we’ll meet with the parents. If the whole package comes together, then we'll take a kid into the program if we have room.
HP: What exactly are you offering?
EE: My goal is to help them them verbalize their observations and thoughts... to make them literate thinkers. I de-emphasize where their kid might wind up going to school, for a number of reasons. 1) I don't want to create an expectation that might not be there. 2) I don’t want to make them feel as if there’s some gate to heaven that opens up when their kid goes to a private school. It’s just not the case. We have many kids in our program who are at public and charter schools and go on to UCLA and Columbia. Those kids are in the program to the same degree that a kid is at Harvard-Westlake. So I try to de-emphasize whether or not their kid will wind up getting a scholarship to a private school. If it turns out that something opens up at a private school, all the better.
HP: There’s no resentment from Lennox District administrators? You’re taking kids away from their school, essentially.
EE: It's a tribute to these local school districts that despite the fact that they're losing some of the kids that "make them look good," they know that this is too important an opportunity for them. Not only do they allow it, but they do everything they can to help us.
HP: What are the social challenges that your scholars face when they transfer to schools that are filled with children from families with much higher incomes?
EE: Challenges range from "I don't understand how anybody can live in a house that big” to “I don’t understand how a family can have more than one car, let alone five cars." Or there's, "I don’t understand why these girls don't include me in their group and why they treat me like I’m the housekeeper's daughter." But high school isn't easy for anybody. I don’t care where you live, how much money your parents have, or what kind of car you drive—high school is a daunting time for kids.
HP: Schools list you as an additional contact on the "parental notification" list when it comes to your scholars. Why is this necessary?
EE: Because sometimes issues come up with high school kids that are beyond the pale of experience for their parents. In fact, when our kids graduate from middle school, they are often achieving the highest scholastic awards that anyone in their family has ever gotten.
There was a boy who had severe acne at a high school; it got so bad that he was covering his face when he spoke. I got a call from a school administrator, telling me, “we need to do something about this, otherwise it could permanently scar his face.” Now, this wasn't an issue his parents were unaware of. It was simply an issue that his parents really didn’t know how to deal with. We were able to get him the medicine, which was surprisingly expensive. We persuaded the doctors –- and this is a tribute to the doctors in our community -– to do the work for nothing. We pay for the medicine, but they’ll do the actual work for nothing.
Another example: recently we had a child in one of the elementary schools whose teacher had asked him to read something off the board, but he couldn't. We discovered that his parents had taken him for an eye exam in October and could not afford the glasses, which means he hadn't been able to read the blackboard for at least a month or so. We immediately stepped in and within 24 hours got him a pair of glasses. And what a tribute to that kid -- he had straight As in spite of the fact that he was probably missing a big chunk of information that was written on the board.
HP: What are your thoughts on how individuals or families can help systemically reform public education?
EE: If I had thoughts or opinions about how to fix the public school system, I'd probably would turn my attention to that and devote my time and energy to it. I don't necessarily have a cogent remedy on the public school system, which is why I do what I do.
HP: How can Angelenos get involved with your work and Y.E.S. if they want to?
EE: Money. Money is becoming more of a problem now than it's ever been in terms of financial aid for these qualified kids. We're unfortunately seeing increasing numbers of kids who are accepted to schools with inadequate financial aid. It's money that we really need, because these kids are earning their place at these schools but it’s becoming an issue of, “can they afford to go?”
I wish we had more time to integrate volunteers into the program. Of course, to do it properly and to be fair to them involves time. It's hard for us to find the time to do that, but they're valuable and we need them. It's just hard for us to find the time for us to train them.
INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED FOR LENGTH.