My wife and I had the distinct pleasure last Thursday evening of attending the 15 year anniversary Shining Star Gala hosted by the Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School. Note to all other charters out there: if you want to stage a perfect celebration follow the pristine example established by this institution. We had never been to a Shining Star event and now we wish that we had had the opportunity to attend all 16. Here is the way it works: You proceed from classroom to classroom, and in each one students proudly demonstrate material from their academic courses. One of the first scholars we met in the Celebrating Our Roots classroom was Dayell Preston, a tenth grader who is spending his second year at TMA. He was playing Martin Luther King, Jr. and provided the packed house with an exquisite rendering of a portion of Dr. King’s infamous “I have a Dream” speech. A second student offered an interpretation of remarks by Supreme Court Judge Thurgood Marshall.
There was one part that was particularly remarkable. In talking with Mr. Preston and other Thurgood Marshall students such as Deonna MaKoy in the advanced geometry class, we found that it was not only the subject matter that these young people had mastered. They were uniformly perfectly articulate in the manner in which we were addressed, and their attire was chosen as if they were about to go on a job interview. We were consistently spoken to in a highly respectful manner while being looked directly in the eyes. In other words, it was obvious that this charter spends as much time on teaching the soft skills that will lead these individuals to becoming successful adults as it does providing them the knowledge necessary to go on to college and beyond. Perhaps all of this effort accounts for students proudly remarking to us about how challenging it has been to get to where they are, as well as being effusively grateful for the numerous flexible office hours provided by the faculty.
It didn’t hurt our moods that we were greeted upon our arrival with some special cocktails. In addition, many of the rooms had food stations in the back complete with catered items such as chicken sausage sliders and jalapeno-spiced hush puppies. Hors D’oeuvres were passed as we scurried through the eight student demonstration centers. In the hallways above our heads were banners that read “Over 93% of alumni enroll in college within one year of graduation,” and “100% of Thurgood Marshall Academy graduates have been accepted to college since 2005.” As a long-past high school debate team member I especially enjoyed seeing a rhetorical volley between two pupils taking the pro and con positions regarding whether this country should accept Syrian refugees. Some of the other presentations included Five In Five, a demonstration of legal skills such as argumentation, negotiation, and advocacy; Stem Fair, a re-creation of STEM booths from this year’s Fair; and Clubs Showcase, which shared information about some of the after-school enrichment programs in which 80 percent of TMA students participate, such as the Chess and the Green Club.
After about an hour it was time to proceed to the gymnasium for the formal program. The many multicolored tables were filled with a plethora of savory desserts. Attendees were each provided with a highly professional glossy brochure that described the Gala’s activities. Waiters served wine and coffee to the guests. Welcoming us from the stage was Richard Pohlman, who became TMA’s executive director this term after serving four years as the chief operating officer of E.L. Haynes Public Charter School. He is only the third person to hold this title in the school’s history, and the two previous E.D.’s, Josh Kern and Alexandra Pardo, were in attendance for the night’s festivities. It is fitting that Mr. Pohlman is now the head of the school since in my 2011 interview with Mr. Kern he commented that E.L Haynes is the charter with which TMA shares the most characteristics. Jenny Niles, D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education and the founder of E.L. Haynes PCS was also in the audience. Mr. Pohlman then turned over the lectern to Richard Roe, director of the D.C. Street Law Program, a professor of Law at Georgetown University, and a member of the TMA Board of Trustees. According to the Georgetown University website, the “Street Law Project specializes in educating the public about the law. In the Street Law High Schools Clinic, law students teach practical law in high schools in the District of Columbia. In the Street Law Community Clinic, law students teach in community and correctional settings, such as the D.C. Jail, homeless shelters, addiction treatment centers and juvenile correctional settings.”
It was most appropriate that Mr. Roe spoke because, as we quickly learned, Thurgood Marshall Academy was created as a project of the Street Law Program as eleven students and professors saw a need to provide the type of education to children living in poverty that was available to them growing up. As Mr. Roe explained the motto of Georgetown Law is “Law is the means – Justice is the end” and it was heroes such as Mr. Kern who took these words to heart. 400 students attend TMA annually, with over 90 percent living in Wards 7 and 8. 75 percent of those enrolled qualify for free or reduced cost lunch. 100 percent are African-American. TMA students are awarded millions of dollars in college scholarships each year, and based upon reading and math standardized test scores it is one of the highest performing open enrollment high schools in D.C.
Also, to consistently round out the event, TMA’s Warrior Award was presented to at-large D.C. Councilman David Grosso. Mr. Grosso also participated in the Street Law Program when he attended Georgetown University Law School. The Councilman spoke about his passion to improve education in our city as part of his strong desire to strengthen human rights. He informed us that he had the opportunity earlier to play chess with a member of the school’s Chess Club although he observed that “he’s really more of a checkers kind of guy.” He stated that he is proud of the fact that Thurgood Marshall Academy is one of the most academically successful schools in the city, but that his dream is that one day the students at Ballou High School reach the same level as those enrolled in TMA. From the people I recognized in the crowd, I can safely say that the entire room shares exactly the same goal.