Yesterday, was an emotionally charged day for me as I attended the 5th Annual Public Policy Symposium for the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School for Public Policy. It had special meaning for a couple of reasons. First, I started my involvement in D.C.’s charter school movement almost 20 years ago as a volunteer tutor at Chavez before quickly joining its board of directors. I had been to many student thesis presentations during that period. The second reason that this event was significant was that it was held in the spectacularly ornate Healy Hall and Gaston Hall Auditorium at Georgetown University. It was from exactly this stage in 2012 and 2013 that I addressed the scholars of Washington Latin PCS as board chair during this school’s first two high school graduations. A chill went down my spine as I saw in attendance Dr. Darren Woodruff, chair of the DC Public Charter School Board. He had handed out diplomas to the students during one of those Washington Latin ceremonies.
The symposium began with a welcome from Chris Murphy, vice president for government relations and community engagement at Georgetown. In fact, this setting was a perfectly appropriate place due to the University’s special relationship with D.C.’s Ward 7 where Chavez’s Parkside Campus is located. Georgetown is heavily involved in supporting the D.C. Promise Neighborhood Initiative in which Chavez PCS plays an important part. Volunteers from the Georgetown campus are engaged with D.C. Reads, a program that works with seven public schools and one community center in the area. Georgetown students also participate in Ward 7 Martin Luther King, Jr. Day activities and the Community Service Day program at the University which helps people living in that neighborhood. Mr. Murphy mentioned that all of these efforts are consistent with the University’s mission of helping others.
The energetic Chavez PCS chief executive officer Joan Massey was then introduced, who proclaimed the Public Policy Symposium her favorite day of the year. She quickly brought to the podium David Johns, the executive director of the White House Initiative on Academic Excellence for African-Americans. Mr. Johns is obviously a passionate individual. He revealed to the audience that he had given up a trip to Italy to be here today. He felt that it was too important to miss. It turns out that Mr. Johns has a special relationship with the charter; Ms. Massey described him as “their angel.” In his moving remarks Mr. Johns wholeheartedly thanked the students, teachers, and parents of Chavez for their unwavering commitment to a high quality education even when times are tough and at these particular moments school is not at the top of their priority list. His speech made an instant sincere connection with everyone in the room. It was clear that if it were up to Mr. Johns all of these students would go on to college and then to jobs at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
We had then reached the point when it was time for Erik Jones, Chavez thesis teacher and symposium moderator, to introduce the student presenters. In the order in which they appeared, Alexys Hewlett, enrolled in the Parkside Campus, spoke on the topic of residential segregation; Nicolas Villarroel, attending the Capitol Hill Campus, covered the Syrian Refugee Crisis; and Brenda Guevera-Ortiz, also from Capitol Hill, discussed access to college for undocumented students.
I have to admit I don’t know how to adequately pay tribute to what I observed. Each of these professionally attired young men and women lectured for about 20 minutes as if these were Ted Talks. Accompanied by clearly laid out PowerPoints, they explained their material in a uniform outline format which included background, controversy, and alternative sections. A long list of references were provided at the end of the decks. All you really have to know to visualize the afternoon is that immediately after Ms. Hewlett started she was unable to automatically advance the slides. With the calm cool that accompanies someone who does this type of public speaking for a living, she simply waited until help arrived to solve the technical issue. She then picked up right where she left off as if nothing had transpired. When it was Mr. Villarroel’s turn to address the guests, he tested the operation of the software first as if he was about to reveal his business plan for his brand new company.
We were witnessing the culmination of a year’s work by these students which were summations of their individual 20 to 30 page senior thesis papers. I was most impressed with the ability of these pupils to explain equally both sides of the argument around the issues they had selected, and their skill in detailing and supporting their proposed public policy remedies. These were not superficial conversations about current day controversies. They were three sophisticated in depth investigations of serious world problems whose solutions have major consequences. So much progress has been made at Chavez PCS over last two decades. It was enough to make you cry.