Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending Fight for Children’s Annual School Luncheon which was a celebration of the schools that have joined this organization’s efforts to improve early childhood education in the nation’s capital. For those who may not know, Fight for Children, though its Joe’s Champs program, is now working with 29 schools teaching 4,100 students ages three through eight, 84 percent of whom quality for free or reduced cost meals. Joe’s Champs is of course named for Fight for Children’s founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who passed away at the end of 2011.
You can tell the stature of any non-profit in this town by who is in attendance at its events, and by this standard Fight for Children is obviously at the pinnacle. Mayor Bowser was there as well as all of Washington D.C.’s leaders in public education. These included my friend DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson, PCSB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles.
When you arrived at the picturesque Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center’s Pavilion Room the lobby was filled with placards honoring the seven schools that comprise the first cohort of Joe’s Champs schools that joined the effort in 2013. These include DC Bilingual PCS, Chamberlain Elementary Campus Friendship PCS, Southeast Elementary Academy Friendship PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, Potomac Prep PCS, Ingenuity Prep PCS, and Powell Elementary. I immediately met Marsha McLean, one of the eight Joe Champs school mentors. Ms. McLean enthusiastically explained that she has been with the program since its inception, paired with the Chamberlain and Woodridge Elementary Campuses of Friendship PCS. She described her excitement in working with the principals and assistant principals of these institutions, bringing resources and coaching to their instruction of pre-Kindergarten students. We even discussed our mutual respect for Friendship’s founder Donald Hense. In fact, I was able to speak to several of the mentors gathered for this occasion, and I have to say that if even half of their energy is absorbed by these young scholars then there are universities in this country that are going to have to find some extra spaces for their new eager undergraduates.
I was greeted warmly as usual by Fight For Children’s president and chef executive officer Michela English. Standing next to her was chief operating officer Keith Gordon. I have been observing Mr. Gordon for a year now and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who smiles more than he does. It is abundantly clear that he has ever had a bad day. Mr. Gordon related that there was interesting news that would be coming out of today’s event.
The meal started with a performance by about 16 three and four year olds from Elsie Whitlow Stokes. The extremely well-behaved students performed a couple of songs for the crowd, in French. I never repeat myself but I will here. These were 16 three and four year olds singing to the audience in French.
Ms. Bowser then addressed the crowd and congratulated Fight for Children for the group’s 26 years of helping to transform public education in Washington, D.C. It is a crucial endeavor. The luncheon’s program states that even after the city’s two decades of school reform 75 percent of third graders are still not proficient in reading and math. This is why Fight for Children, with its nine staff members and budget of about $7 million a year, is trying to ensure that “every third grader has the necessary foundation to succeed in school.”
Next on the program was a fascinating panel interview of three Joe’s Champ’s school leaders moderated by ABC7 and News Channel 8 Anchor Jummy Olabanji. This is the second consecutive year Ms. Olabanji has been the master of ceremonies, and joining her on stage were Anna Hickman from Ingenuity Prep PCS, Khabria Hundley representing the Chamberlain Campus of Friendship PCS, and Kira Moore of Powell Elementary. There were many highlights of this discussion for me including the detailing of the Joe’s Champ training around Professional Learning Communities, which I understood to be a description of a highly engaging form of professional development that includes monthly discussions among teachers of public policy, research, and practices around early childhood education. Ms. Moore spoke of a project methodology to teaching her kids which is driven by the students’ interests. The astounding result, she informed us, are children that will not stop asking questions. She portrayed it as bringing about”a culture of wonder” to the classroom. Ms. Hickman informed us of the collaboration between the pre-K and Kindergarten classes at her school, with five year olds visiting the younger pupils to explain the fascinating things they would be learning in their first year of elementary school.
The program concluded with Ms. English making the announcement that Joe’s Champs is now ready to graduate to Version 2.0. The Fight for Children CEO revealed that the program would expand beyond early childhood instruction and now assist students up to the third grade. The first group of three extraordinary fortunate facilities to take part in this enhancement, Ms. English disclosed, are DC Bilingual, Elsie Whitlow Stokes, and Friendship’s Chamberlain. The audience wasted no time in expressing their universal approval of her declaration through ecstatic applause.