Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the pleasure of attending the retirement and birthday party for the founder, chief executive officer, and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School Donald Hense. Mr. Hense retired this evening as CEO, as he continues his role as chair of the school’s board of directors. Held at Washington, D.C.’s Grand Hyatt Hotel, it was as if someone had thrown open a powerful electric circuit feeding one of the Friendship Teacher of the Year ceremonies that Michele and I have had the honor to be guests of for many years. In fact, just as with the Teacher of Year events, the television commentator and author Roland Martin was the Master of Ceremonies. The night included speeches, roasts, song, poetry, and much laughter. But I do not think any affair can really fully capture the legacy of this man that is bigger than life.
Mr. Hense had gotten to know Martin Luther King, Jr. when he was at Morehouse College. Later, as the executive director of Friendship House, he saw first hand the problems facing those living in poverty. “You cannot provide a child with a vision if the parent doesn’t know where rent or the next meal is coming from,” Mr. Hense realized. “How are parents with that kind of stress going to tell their children they can become the next president of the United States?” He came to understand that schools were not preparing these kids adequately for college so he opened Friendship in the poorest areas of D.C.
Friendship PCS was founded in 1998 which makes it one of the first charters in the nation’s capital. I would start my involvement in this movement a year later. So allow me to give you a sneak peak into what this was like. Charters were looked at as organizations that were trying to steal kids from the traditional public schools. Distrust was rampant, with many accusing this movement of privatizing education by making it a for-profit business. I remember like it was yesterday approaching a bank for a loan to acquire a building. The official looked at me like I was crazy when I explained that the only collateral we had was students.
Friendship has grown to 11 campuses teaching over 4,200 children. In addition, there are two partnership schools in Baltimore and one in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 99 percent of Friendships student population is African-American with 75 percent qualifying for free or reduced price meals. Three out of four pupils live in Wards 7 and 8. 15 percent are special education students.
Three of Friendship’s campuses are now classified as Tier 1 on the DC Public Charter School’s Performance Management Framework. Friendship’s four-year high school graduate rate is around 95 percent, much higher than DCPS’s 64 percent and the overall rate of charters at 72 percent.
Over 95 percent of its 2,500 high school graduates have gone on to college. Through Friendship’s efforts these students have been awarded over $40 million in scholarships.
Mr. Hense turned 74 years old on July 4th. He summarizes his motivation for his exceptionally difficult work over the last 18 years this way:
“I believe the best thing you can do to get people out of poverty is to educate them. The most valuable skill in today’s economy, where jobs can be located anywhere there is an Internet connection, is knowledge. And knowledge, for the vast majority, is nurtured within our local public schools. We all share the responsibility to make a difference in the lives of our children. I know it can be done. We do it every day at Friendship.”