MK Asante defies odds, credits Philly school


ASANTE: MK Asante credits Crefeld School, his third school in three years, with his transformation.

By Stacia Friedman |

PHILADELPHIA — When 15-year-old MK Asante dropped out of high school, started dealing drugs and living out of his car in North Philadelphia, he seemed like just another statistic. The district has one of the lowest graduation rates in the nation for black males and a 72 percent dropout rate, the majority by ninth grade.

Asante’s neighborhood school, Samuel Fels High, was — and still is — among the most violent in the city. In 2012, Fels made the state’s list of Persistently Violent Schools. When Asante attended in the late 1990s, he described it as a prison. “Police roam hallways, whirling nightsticks like band directors,” he wrote in his acclaimed memoir “Buck.

Asante credits Crefeld School, his third school in three years, with his transformation.

“Crefeld changed my life,” said Asante, class of 2000. Before coming to the small, private school in the Chestnut Hill section of the city, Asante’s life was on a downward trajectory. His father was absent from the home, his mother mentally ill. His brother was incarcerated, and his best friend was shot dead before his eyes.

Crefeld prides itself on its diversity. Thirty-nine percent of its enrollment are students of color, twice the national average for a small, independent school. Financial aid and scholarships underwrite the tuition for those who qualify. The school annually raises the money, in combination with funding from state programs that allow corporations to offset taxes by donating to private schools.

Asante’s previous experiences with education was bleak. “Tests, tests, and more tests, that’s the only language they speak” he writes. By comparison, Crefeld’s leafy campus and relaxed, nurturing atmosphere offered sanctuary.

Teachers went by first names. There were no uniforms. No over-crowded classrooms. With enrollment of only 100 students, an emphasis on “experiential” learning and a commitment to diversity, Crefeld provided a safe environment for Asante to tap into his potential.

“Before Crefeld, the last book I read was in sixth grade,” Asante writes.

Under the guidance of his English teacher, he devoured Jack Kerouac, Walt Whitman, George Orwell and James Baldwin. He also started to write. Once the words started coming, they didn’t stop.

“I told my teacher, I want to be a writer,” said Asante, named by Essence magazine as the “voice of a new generation.”

While that remark might have drawn a half-hearted smile in an over-crowded public school, Crefeld took Asante’s dreams seriously. Guarded at first, he slowly developed the self-confidence to read his writing aloud in class, eventually performing his work before enthusiastic audiences in poetry slams in the city.

“Our students are smart, creative and think outside-the-box,” says George Zeleznik. Now heading the school, he was Asante’s science teacher.

“But some children learn differently. They fall through the cracks in large, public high schools. They also don’t fit the mold of highly competitive private schools. Because of our small size and the services we offer, we are able to handle a level of complexity that some other schools might not be able to handle.”

Crefeld is one of 1,000 progressive schools in the country that belong to the Coalition of Essential Schools. CES Common Principles are prominently displayed in a colorful poster in Zeleznik’s office. Students are encouraged to take ownership of their learning process, demonstrate leadership, give back to their community and champion social justice.

At Crefeld, Asante’s story isn’t the exception. It’s the rule.

“We focus on experiential learning,” said Zeleznik. Much of that learning is “hands-on.” In the glass-blowing studio, students learn the importance of teamwork and collaboration, which, Zeleznick says, is “essential to success in the workplace.”

Under the guidance of instructor Josh Cole, all Crefeld students learn to work safely, making small glass sculptures and jewelry with blow torches and using the studio’s 2,100-degree furnace to create larger decanters, vases and sculptures.

A lustrous yellow and white glass vase sits on the mantel of Zeleznik’s office, created by a recent graduate.

CREFELD: Nicole Macey, class of 2015, in glassblowing studio.

While cultural programs have been eliminated in many public schools due to budget cuts, Crefeld offers art, music, theater and dance classes. The school brings in Outward Bound Philadelphia, an experience-based, outdoor program, to provide every sophomore with leadership training. Opportunities for students to display their leadership skills are put into practice each week in community-service programs.

“All our students attend college or an institution of higher learning after graduation,” said Zeleznik. Starting in the second semester of 11th grade, Crefeld, students may take courses for college credit at nearby Chestnut Hill College. Recent graduates have been accepted at Bennington College, Drexel University, Reed College, the University of Pittsburgh, Oberlin College and Sarah Lawrence College.

Asante went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College, MFA from UCLA School of Film and Television and studied at the University of London. Now a tenured professor of creative writing and film at Morgan State University, in addition to his memoir, Asante is the author of four other books, and his film “500 Years Later,” won five international film festival awards. He is a Sundance Film Institute Fellow and is currently adapting “Buck” for the big screen.