04/11/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Jun 11, 2013

YES Says Glamour Sells... Even An Education

There is much debate in this country about education reform in the public school system. Discussions range from cost analyses, to teacher tenure and on-line services; in short, issues that address the "system." There are many wonderful organizations and talented people devoted to improving the system and I salute them.

But I have a different thought about education and "systems." Systems produce products. If students were "products" of an education system, then focusing on "system reform" would be entirely rational. But to view students as products is to neglect the essential nature of what they are; first and foremost, they are "consumers" -- consumers of education.

New and improved systems affect only cost and value. Cost and value mean nothing to consumers who lack a predisposed appetite for the product. Unfortunately, "systems" cannot create appetites. At best, they can serve them. What does create appetites? Marketing creates appetites, and our program, YES (Young Eisner Scholars), has the best track record for marketing education to America's underserved communities. Marketing a product to kids is always about making it "glamorous" to them. Nike knows this. Gatorade knows this, so they hire young stars like Justin Bieber, LeBron James and Cam Newton to do the job that only they (not systems nor the adults that try to improve them) can do. But who are the young stars that can make education glamorous to kids living in these communities?

For many years, the Admission Directors of the top schools in the country came to recruit YES Scholars from the barrios where we find and cultivate them. Despite the glossy brochures and fine-tuned pitches, the "grownups" had little impact at these recruitment events. One year, Marymount School sent a YES Scholar, a high school junior in her Marymount School uniform, who spoke with a poise and confidence that rivaled the adult Admission Directors. I watched 23 8th graders from the toughest part of town snap to attention... attention that never faded. Their eyes remained glued to the living advertisement of what they now could dream of becoming. Advertising is about dreams. Thereafter, the only ambassadors sent by the prep schools were YES Scholars in their school uniform. The schools wised-up. Glamour sells!

When YES Scholars return home for Christmas wearing their sweatshirts from Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Amherst, Columbia, UCLA, Michigan, Carnegie Mellon (and all the other wonderful universities they attend) they make education glamorous to all their siblings, cousins and the kids on their block who have the potential to be hungry customers for success. YES produces the living advertisements that promote the dream, glamorize and create the appetite for education. The success of YES Scholars sells education. The "better system" will be beneficial only to the kids that are so inspired.

The evolution of my career working with these promising and courageous kids from gang and drug invested neighborhoods remains an enigma to most. I certainly had no formal training for this. I became curious about how and what my own children were learning when good luck afforded me a reasonably early retirement. The battle for their young minds pitted me against Ninja Turtles, Power Rangers and the other icons of pop culture. Needless to say, I was losing the war. Undaunted, I seized upon an opportunity to meet with under-privileged kids, seeking out those whose minds seemed to be navigating through the maze of distractions towards more cognitive thinking. The goal was to see what inspired them. The result was to be inspired by them and to come to understand their deficiencies and the obstacles in their long journey to success. I feared the obstacles would ultimately defeat them The YES program is the accumulation of 14 years of experience identifying and remediating their deficiencies and emboldening kids to soldier through the obstacles

Based upon our success in Los Angeles, Columbia University's Double Discovery Center asked us to bring our program to the students of District Five in Harlem. I have just finished spending a month in New York interviewing candidates. We found students whose curiosity and courage stir a hunger for the challenges that develop skills neither their schools nor homes can provide. Yes, these students exist even in discouraging circumstances. YES excels at recognizing them and confronting them with the challenges that cultivate the skills they need. Their schools can do little more than instruct them to memorize and regurgitate... to be an obedient audience for the teacher. YES demands something quite different... the determination to acquire the grammar, vocabulary and reasoning to be the architects of their own thoughts. Last year, the Wall St. Journal decided that YES was the Innovator Of The Year in Education. I hope this means that YES is gaining ground in its effort to offer America the kids it needs to "sell education."

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