I simply love going to events where the organizing body has taken steps to improve its fine performance from the year before. So it was with the E.L. Haynes Public Charter School’s sixth annual Toast to Transformation held as it traditionally has been at the LongView Gallery. Here’s just a snippet of one of the positive changes: when guests arrived they were serenaded by 14 members of the school’s steel drum band set up on the sidewalk in front of the gallery. Bystanders passing by together with visitors to the D.C. Convention Center across the street immediately began taking videos with their cell phones of the festivities. As participants entered the space, students lined up to welcome everyone to the party with firm handshakes and a copy of the night’s program.
Food is an important ingredient to a successful evening and in this area attendees were not about to go hungry. Besides the appetizers being circulated and cheeseburger and crab cake sliders, there were portable taco carts boasting either shrimp or short ribs. Important note for anyone wanting to keep my wife Michele and I coming back to a gathering: arrange for the taco cart.
But this gala was really about the scholars, and so soon after arriving elementary school students did a fine rendition of portions of the musical “The Lion King.” Shortly after this performance I met Jennifer Arevalo, a E.L. Haynes senior who is planning on attending Old Dominion University in the fall. She informed me, and it was as if I was speaking to an adult who had already spent years in the professional work world, that she has been enrolled at Haynes since the sixth grade. I thought this would be a perfect individual to ask as to whether she liked the school. “I’ve loved it,” she answered without hesitation with a gigantic smile lighting up her face. I just had to inquire as to the reason for her conclusion. Ms. Arevalo explained that the instructors are extremely supportive. She stated that she had taken A.P. calculus and the teacher provided office hours for assistance with the material before and after school and on Saturdays and Sundays. She added that it was left up to the students to initiate consultations with the teacher during those hours in order to encourage them to learn to take responsibility for their education.
“Let me give you an another example,” Ms. Arevalo said. “During the eighth grade I was having difficulty getting to school on time each day and it was negatively impacting my grades. A teacher noticed and decided to help me. She picked me up every morning at my house so I would be in my seat when the first class begun.” This is when tears started flowing from my eyes.
It was time for the formal program so the packed audience gathered in the back of the room in front of the stage. We were first entertained with a highly energetic and perfectly synchronized routine by the high school step team that had formed only a year ago. Then we received welcoming remarks from Hilary Darilek, the E.L. Haynes Chief Executive Officer. She mentioned that she has been in her role for 18 months. I found it impossible to believe that she has been in this position that long. But someone who had no difficulty with this information was D.C.’s Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles, who of course was the founder of this charter school and was its long-time executive director. I was standing right next to Ms. Niles, and I could see from her expression that she could not be more proud of the strong positive trajectory of this well-respected academic institution.
Honored at the celebration was John King, Jr., who is now the president and C.E.O. of The Education Trust, and was recently the U.S. Secretary of Education. I have to admit that before this gathering I knew little about Mr. King. But after he spoke I understood completely why he was selected by President Obama for this role.
Mr. King explained that our country is at an important point in its history for the quality of opportunity for its kids. He stated that many may want to turn away from the crucial role of public education. But he stated that a majority of pupils attending our public schools are now minorities. He warned we will weaken our democracy if we fail to support underserved African Americans and Latinos.
Mr. King related that his mother passed away when he was eight years old and in the fourth grade. His father had an non-diagnosed early form of Alzheimer’s Disease who died when he was twelve. Mr. King recalled that in the absence of his parents school was the centerpiece of his life. He pointed out that his public school teachers invested in him and gave him hope for the future.
Mr. King observed that we must be champions for public education and champions for equity. The former Education Secretary implored those standing before him to act with a sense of urgency to close the academic achievement gap demonstrated by affluent students scoring at the 74 percent proficiency rate and those living in poverty coming in at 11 percent for the same statistic. Mr. King asserted boldly that “we all ought to have our hair on fire” regarding this disparity.
You might think that the atmosphere could not have become anymore energized after Mr. King’s words but in this case you would be mistaken. Immediately following the speech a nine year old elementary student named Rein, backed up by the elementary school choir, gave about as moving a vocal performance as I have seen as she sang the song “Rise Up.”
The presentations came to an end with remarks by Abigail Smith, the E.L. Haynes board chair, parent trustee, and former D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education, who was ecstatic to reveal that she has a child who is a member of the steel drum band. I ran into Ms. Darilek as guests resumed their conversations and I asked her what she was excited about regarding the 2017 Toast to Transformation. “I’m just so pleased to have had John King here,” she beamed. “The ideas he stands for as far as striving to support diversity and equity in public education is exactly what E.L. Haynes PCS is all about.” From this day’s proceedings it would be impossible to come away believing anything else.