04/05/2011 06:09 pm ET Updated Jun 05, 2011

Ase: College Kids Remind Us That We Are All Educators

I -- like many of you, I imagine -- find myself challenged by the state of our educational system. I regret the high dropout rates and low graduation rates. I am stunned by schools that have as high as 75 percent of their students not reading at expected proficiency levels. The list of problematic realities -- dilapidated buildings, anemic libraries, school violence, high teacher and administrator turnover, technology gaps, faculty layoffs -- continues on and on, depending upon which region or locality you examine.

Yet, along with the perpetual struggles above, one of the most dangerous threats to the education of the young people in our country is the lack of responsibility that many of us "non-educators" feel. Sure, I can talk and write about it with the best of them. I have depressing statistics and shocking stories and occasional opinions about where we need to go as a country. Most of the conversations about education that I find myself in end with soliloquies about "What the superintendent and the teachers need to do is (insert something about coordinated efforts, early childhood interventions or teacher motivation)." But my rants lack action and commitment. They're just words.

I fully understand the very important role that critical thought and reflection play in engaging the challenges of our education systems, but there is so much more that all of us can do -- besides talking about it and pointing fingers.

The glaring truth is that the education of our children cannot solely be the responsibility of educators. Further, our concern about education must extend past how our own kids are doing and expand to all children, especially those at risk. We all can, and in order for things to get better, must participate in the work of teaching. I don't think I understood that until I came across an educational experiment called Ase Saturday Academy, here in Philadelphia.

"The current conversation relinquishes the task of educating to the 'educators' or those individuals trained to be in front of a classroom," Tracee Thomas, executive director of the Ase Academy shares.

In the late 1990s, a simple conversation between Black undergraduate students who, in the words of co-founder Brian Peterson, "wanted to know more about themselves," sparked the beginning of Ase.

"These conversations moved through a broad array of topics including politics, black literature, art, Hip-Hop, religion, gender, business, but they always came back to education," says Peterson. They continued to talk and talk about the societal problems that were stifling the educational journeys of our kids and ultimately deeply hurting our communities.

Then one day, they "got tired of talking."

The first group of "mentors," as the college participants are called, saw a need to enhance the manner in which children in the West Philadelphia community were being educated, and they did not see that happening through traditional means. So they started a Saturday school.

Founded in 1999, the Ase Academy describes itself as "an academic and cultural enrichment Saturday-school program in Philadelphia." The Saturday school is staffed by college kids who teach lessons ranging from math and reading enrichment to dance, theater and visual arts. More than 100 middle and high school kids apply and commit to spending another full day at school with their mentors, University of Pennsylvania undergraduate students.

The word "Ase" (pronounced ah-shay) is a Yoruba word of affirmation, appreciation or acknowledgment. And that's just what this program does. It affirms kids who may often feel just the opposite by seeing the negative portrayal of African-Americans in the media and the absence of African-American presence in much of what they are studying in school.

Mornings are spent focusing on the academic work that helps to supplement what the students are doing in school. This added attention given in small "learning centers" of three or four students by one mentor provides the investment that many children need, but don't always receive at school or at home. These tutoring sessions are filled with creative games to teach not only math skills and reading comprehension, but art, history, music, dance, business, science and other subjects that many of the Philadelphia schools that they attend no longer offer.

Afternoon sessions focus on African-centered curriculum. A young African-American girl or boy learns about Madam C.J. Walker, the U.N.I.A. and Black business. While writing their own verses, kids read and listen to the poetry of Langston Hughes and Larry Neal, learning about the Harlem Renaissance, The Black Arts Movement and Negritude. In one class, a college student teaches on "blood diamonds" and their effects on many people in Africa. She gets all of the students on the subway and they ride down to Philadelphia's Jewelers' Row; she has the students ask the shop owners where they purchase their diamonds. Other students are delighted to see their Saturday school art teacher Abdi Farah on television as he wins the reality show "Next Great Artist." Others are thrilled to see mentor Joshua Bennett on HBO's series "Def Poetry Slam," and then to see pictures of him performing in front of the President. The premise is simple. Students need to see people that look like them succeeding in the world. The curriculum not only educates, but empowers.

In the days of assessment and efficacy concerns, the question must be asked: is this Saturday school making a difference? The results at this point are qualitative. Mothers come up to Peterson and Thomas and thank them because their "daughter wouldn't have made it without them." Mentors can hear the difference in reading ability after just one year of close tutoring. Ase students feel comfortable looking their mentors in the eye when they no longer feel like their life expectancy is 18, but rather the expectancy on their life is success.

For Peterson, author of the book Higher Learning, these results are the goal.

"All we want is for students to see their own value and for communities to see their value as well," Peterson says. He has been a man on a mission, akin to educational geniuses like Geoffrey Canada or the founders of the KIPP or SEED schools. Conversations with him reveal his desire for far more than improved proficiency levels or graduation rates -- he's trying to uplift entire communities.

In Philadelphia, the need for this type of social entrepreneurship is dire. But Ase is not only effecting local communities and the children who are participating; it's touching the lives of the college students who are staffing it as well. Thomas got involved with Ase as a freshmen and found that she was deeply affected by the African-centered curriculum that they were teaching. Coming from a high school where she was one of only four black women in her graduating class, Thomas found herself connecting in powerful ways with the African-centric lessons and the students that she was working with. Thus, she not only served as a mentor during her undergraduate years, but after finishing college and working as a school teacher, she returned to Ase as its executive director (since 1999, Ase has grown to be a fully-staffed nonprofit organization with a national board).

Peterson, looking back over the more than 10 years of Ase, tells stories of undergraduates who turn down high-paying jobs on Wall Street to pursue careers in education. Others talk about how working with Ase helped them identify their true vocations, which in various ways are all dedicated to uplifting their communities -- be it through education, business, medicine, law, the arts or whatever field the mentors end up in. These college kids don't have to do this. These aren't their children -- for most of them, it's not even their neighborhood. But they invest in the lives of these kids as if these little ones were family. Ase is not a just resume builder for them.

"I just like that it's a grassroots organization that saw a problem and actually tried to fix it," says Juna Dawson-Murray, a current Ase mentor preparing for a law career after graduation.

A visit to Ase during any Saturday morning will bring you in contact with mentors who are pre-med, pre-law, en route to Ph.D.s, music industry hopefuls, dancers, visual artists and entrepreneurs who already own businesses, as well as students who have no idea what they want to do after they graduate. I think that's the genius of Ase. That anybody can do it. Anyone can participate in the educational enterprise.

"The task of educating the next generation should be a collective input from every individual in the community," says Thomas. "In African society, the charge of "medu lawu" meaning "train your replacement" was charged to every member of society, from the youngest child to the elders ready to transition."

I suppose the greatest lesson that the founders and mentors of Ase have taught me is that we all can do something about education -- especially those of us who are not teachers. Can you find time to tutor a kid at the public school closest to you? Maybe you can volunteer as a coach, a music teacher or an art teacher. Or start an after school program where people from your office add just an hour to their day once or twice a week to help kids with reading. Could your place of worship become an early learning center? Or open a computer lab? Could you gather the resources to refurbish and update an elementary school library so that fifth-graders don't open an encyclopedia and think that Jimmy Carter is President? Maybe you could become a Big Brother or Big Sister or mentor in a program and help change just one life. Do you enjoy knitting, dancing or politics? Have you been successful in business? Come tell our kids how you did it. Or maybe like the group of college kids in Philadelphia, you could start a Saturday school. Whatever you do, share it and your time with a child. We are all teachers.