Last Thursday evening my wife Michele and I had the great pleasure of attending the 17th annual Shining Star Gala at Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS entitled “Going the Extra Mile.” For us the honor of joining this ceremony is a highlight of the year. Let me explain the reasons we love this event as much as we do.
If you have never been to Thurgood Marshall the structure itself, the old Nichols Avenue School, is beautiful in its classic form. It perfectly foretells the academic rigor taking place in the classrooms. But you don’t have to guess what is going on in this walls. Banners hung from the ceiling give the story away with phrases such as “100% of our students accepted to college,” and “93 percent enroll within 1 year of graduating.” You still don’t get the idea? Then all you have to do is refer to one of the placards adoring the cocktail tables spread around the hallways. “90% of students are promoted to the next grade.” “80% of students reside in Wards 7 & 8.” “75% of our faculty and staff have graduate degrees and teachers have an average of 6.5 years of teaching experience.” “82% of graduates from 2009 to 2015 are currently enrolled.”
I quickly ran into Richard Pohlman, the school’s executive director. I asked him what he was excited about this year. He answered without hesitation. “I’m excited about everything. The students and teachers are what really impress me,” Mr. Pohlman replied. “In 2017 Thurgood Marshall had its first Washington Post Teacher of the Year nomination with Tara Allen, one of our extremely skilled math teachers. We continue to have 100 percent college acceptance with students attending 85 colleges across the country including institutions such as New York University, the University of Virginia, and Spelman College. We have an alumni program that helps remove barriers to students completing their post-secondary education.”
When you attend the gala there are student representatives positioned throughout the facility to assist guests in navigating through the celebration. There are a couple of ways to approach the program. Guests can pick one of the classrooms to experience the various student demonstrations such as the Stem fair; English language arts highlighting the school’s legal curriculum, an introduction to Spanish instruction, or our favorite from last year, the social studies room where student scholars debate issues of the day. Alternatively, you could decide to organize your time based upon the classroom buffet station selections which on this evening included Indian, Asian, Italian, or my preference, the gourmet sliders where I found miniature New England lobster rolls. But as a reporter on this day, I concentrated on the academics.
I received directions from Jazmyne Bradford, an extremely articulate eleventh grader. She has attended TMA since the ninth grade and loves the school because of the faculty that Ms. Bradford explained to me “helps me reach my goals and aspirations.” She wants to go into arts media and entertainment when she graduates college, and is looking to attend either Full Sail University or McNally College of Music due to her chosen major.
Between the passed appetizers I wandered into the English room where I spoke to eleventh grader Donovan Raymond, another highly impressive eleventh grader who came to the charter last year. He discussed with me the book, “A Gathering of Old Men,” by Ernest Gaines. After providing me with a quick synopsis of the plot, Mr. Raymond asserted that the work was assigned as an example of “how fiction can be utilized to give voice to the voiceless.”
In the hallway I ran into Irene Holtzman, the FOCUS executive director. She informed me that she is glad to be here at TMA and exceptionally excited about her organization’s annual gala that is coming up next week. Next to her was Matt Schorr, a tenth and twelfth grade geometry and statics instructor who teaches an honors geometry course. He is completing his first year at Thurgood Marshall and is highly enthusiastic about the school. He detailed that the students are what makes this place great and he is moved by the amount of support he receives from the administration. Mr. Schorr introduced me to Anthony James, one of his tenth grade students. Mr. James thinks the world of Mr. Schorr because he knows that this teacher wants him to succeed. Mr. James plans to become a brain surgeon after attending UCLA. His future career, he explained, is being driven by his interest in geometry.
The event has two parts. After the classroom demonstrations attendees are asked to transfer into the gymnasium for dessert and other refreshments. As part of the formal ceremony, Mr. Pohlman presented the Warrior Award to retiring board chair George Brown. The glossy professional brochure that is provided to guests details that Mr. Brown “has excelled in both the private and public sectors as he has sought to promote and ensure fair and equitable housing opportunities. . . George is probably best described by one of his latest partners-in-crime, Lou Durden, who says ‘He has a fantastic sense of humor – and he zeros in on the ridiculous; he is smart in about ten different ways; and he has a terrific sense of place – he knows where he is and how he fits, whether he can see the space or not.’”
Sitting next to me at the table was Sanjay Mitchell, the charter’s director of college and alumni programs. He casually let me know that TMA’s seniors have earned approximately $8.5 million in scholarships this year which includes one Posse Scholarship. He leads student through a discovery process of selecting five colleges that they may be interested in attending beginning in their junior year. Mr. Mitchell commented that “We try to identify the schools that are going to nurture these young people as individuals.” From my time spent at TMA, it is clear that this is the goal of every adult in the building.