The 2016 FOCUS Gala

Last Thursday my wife Michele and I had the tremendous pleasure of attending the 2016 Friends of Choice in Urban Schools gala which celebrated the 20th anniversary of the start of Washington, D.C.’s charter school movement.  In keeping with the evening’s theme, planners of the event included multiple clever reminders of 1996.  For example, participants arriving at a function customarily receive an identification badge.  Not tonight.  Guests were greeted with various brightly colored slap bracelets imprinted with their names.  The cocktail tables held containers filled with candy from the era such as Pop Rocks.  Surrounding the treats were origami fortune telling squares of paper like those I can remember making with my kids.  I imagine that the one I tried stated “you will meet the love of your life” which has been true for over three decades.

The tables also included highly professional glossy brochures detailing the program, complete with a history of charters in the nation’s capital.

The setting for the celebration was spectacularly beautiful.  Hundreds gathered at the Mexican Cultural Institute on 16th Street, N.W.  The elegant mansion was designed by Nathan Wyeth and George Fuller, the same architects as the White House’s West Wing.  My wife and I felt like we were back in Mexico City as murals painted by Roberto Cueva del Río in the tradition of artist Diego Rivera graced many of the walls.  We were in for an excellent experience.

Prominent leaders in education reform in this town joined us for the festivities.  These included D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, D.C. Council Ward 4 representative Brandon Todd, Former Louisiana U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, former PCSB  chairman Tom Nida, current PCSB chairman Dr. Darren Woodruff, former PCSB executive directors Nelson Smith and Josephine Baker, current PCSB executive director Scott Pearson, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools Dr. Ramona Edelin, and Building Hope’s president Joe Bruno.

There was a cocktail hour with an open bar and appetizers in which heads of some of the most recognized local charters congregated over lively conversation.  It was here that I ran into Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director.  I asked her what it was like for her to be hosting this gala for the first time.  “I’m excited to have this opportunity, particularly because this is the 20th anniversary of our local movement,” Ms. Holtzman stated.  “This is a special year for FOCUS as we inaugurate the new Charter School Hall of Fame.  I’ve closely followed the amazing progress of charters in this city, and so it is especially poignant for me that at this point in our history I find myself in this role.”

It was soon time to move into an adjoining room for the presentations and recognition of the Hall of Fame inductees.  As the FOCUS executive director had mentioned these awards had not been given out in the past, but the event ran like clockwork as if the ceremony was old hat.  Perhaps this was because it would have been hard to find three more deserving people to join the initial cohort.  The winners were Sonia Gutierrez, founder of Carlos Rosario International PCS; my hero Donald Hense, founder of Friendship PCS; and Malcolm (Mike) Peabody, founder of FOCUS.  Maquita Alexander, FOCUS board member and head of Washington Yu Ying PCS, introduced Ms. Gutierriez.  Mary Procter, FOCUS board member and former chief operating officer of Friendship, gave opening remarks about Mr. Hense, and Karl Jentoft, FOCUS board chair, provided the background information regarding Mr. Peabody.  If I had to find one common element to the words of those joining the Hall of Fame, it would be the grateful recognition that they each paid to Josephine Baker for her invaluable assistance during her time at the PCSB.

At this point in the program we heard from Mayor Muriel Bowser.  She congratulated FOCUS and the movement on its first 20 years, and she took the opportunity to announce that she has put forward the largest public education budget in D.C.’s history. The Mayor committed to her unwavering support of public school reform, and she expressed her  strong desire to work with all stakeholders in a collaborative fashion to strengthen each sector.  Final remarks were offered by FOCUS’s senior director of government relations Michael Musante, who sincerely thanked Mayor Bowser and Council Chairman Mendelson for their enthusiastic backing of the Congressional SOAR Act, the legislation that contains within it the Opportunity Scholarship Program.

As was mentioned in my interview with Ms. Holtzman last November, much of her school experience took place at KIPP D.C.  So it was only fitting that the last item on the program was a 90’s dance compilation from Mr. Sorto’s Kindergarten class at KIPP D.C.’s Promise Academy PCS.  About a dozen of cute and well-behaved children put on a flawless performance to songs such as “The Macarena,” and “U Can’t Touch This.”  The audience was encouraged to join in.  All in all it is was a party perfectly suited for schools proudly teaching 44 percent of all kids in our neighborhoods.



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