I just love when organizations that have hosted annual events shake things up by re-imagining the ceremony. So was the case last Thursday evening with Thurgood Marshall Academy PCS’s 2018 Shining Star Gala. This year the celebration was moved from the charter’s classic building in Anacostia where it has been held in the past to the downtown D.C. law firm of Hogan Lovells U.S. LLP. The chair of Thurgood Marshall’s board of directors Jonathan Stoel, a graduate from Georgetown Law, is a leader in the practice, and many of the school’s program partners such as Crowell & Moring LLP, Latham & Watkins LL, and Williams & Connolly LLP, have offices located in close vicinity to this site. While Thurgood Marshall’s executive director Richard Pohlman assured the guests that next spring the proceedings will be back at the school, it was fascinating to see the transformation of all of the usual activities to a new space. Come with me inside.
When attendees entered the expansive first level atrium of the office building, they were whisked to the 13th floor by a TMA student. Joining me on my elevator ride was Meiko, a sophomore, who explained that she chose to attend the charter because of the many support systems it provides. Once I arrived at the main level, Destiny, an 11th grader who has spent her entire high school experience at Thurgood Marshall, directed me to the registration desk. She related that when she first came to the school she was behind academically in math, and shyly pointed out that before coming to TMA she was not so good a pupil. Now, she beamed that she is on the honor role.
I immediately headed up a grand staircase to the roof terrace with its bird’s eye view of the Washington Monument. Down a long path where the patio took a turn to the right was seated a musical quartet composed of individuals playing the keyboard, bass, drums, and saxophone. But before I could reach the bar at that end, I was stopped in my tracks by Spanish instructor Jessie Yuan. She has been teaching this subject at the school for a decade and she was ready for my arrival. “Working at this charter school offers more flexibility around the design of the curriculum and the administration supports our creativity,” Ms. Yuan exclaimed. She detailed that while D.C. requires high school students take to two years of a foreign language, TMA has its pupils to take three. Ms. Yuan informed me that she utilizes Organic World Language, an out-of-the -box pedagogy that encourages students to speak, draw, or circumlocute in the second language 100 percent of the time while in the classroom. In order to explain circumlocution, the teacher immediately engaged me in a game with her student London, a junior. The young woman would hold up a card with a picture of an object with its name written in Spanish beneath it. Between plentiful appetizers brought around by uniformed waiters and waitresses, Ms. Yuan and I would compete to be the one to act out a replica of the word by being the first to press a buzzer like on the television game show Jeopardy. I immediately wanted to take Ms. Yuan’s course.
Before heading back downstairs I took a minute to review the placards positioned in each of the waist-high flower beds dividing the patio into sections every few yards. One read “100 percent of TMA students accepted to college.” Another stated, “TMA’s in-seat attendance rate is 94.5 percent.” A third said that “80 percent of the alumni class from 2008 and above are enrolled in college.”
I then joined Ahnna Smith, the interim Deputy Mayor for Education, who was observing 10th grade geometry students utilizing a computer program to construct windmills. We were in one of seven classroom explorations set up this evening. When Ms. Smith asked one of the presenters why she liked this school the student replied that her family has always taught her that her education is the most important thing in life because it cannot be taken away.
In another math classroom I watched as two impressive girls used algebraic equations to calculate their potential future earnings in the careers of nursing and fashion design. I stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the shrimp cocktail prepared with three different seasonings provided for guests on a side counter. Moving next door, equally smart advanced placement chemistry students tried their best to describe to me Le Chatelier’s principal. They are taking their AP test today. I am confident they will pass with flying colors. Their teacher, Liza Enrich, has been with TMA for seven years and greatly appreciates the trust in the instructional staff exhibited by the charter’s leadership. “We are allowed to try different stategies,” Ms. Enrich informed me, “and we are never micromanaged.”
The formal program was about to begin. On the way back upstairs to the enclosed common area that also contained two buffet stations, I heard one of the many soapbox speeches provided by students. The extensive and well produced booklet for the evening’s activities mentions that TMA students competed in a D.C. soapbox competition sponsored by The Mikva Challenge. The passionate address I heard spoke about education as a civil rights issue.
Mr. Pohlman in his remarks thanked all of the volunteers that provide important services to his students. Tutoring, mentoring, and classes teaching the subject of law are just some of the ways those from outside the school work with those enrolled at TMA. There is even an academy run by Howard University School of Law students that assist with professional development and enhancing the pupils’ legal skills.
But Mr. Pohlman also recalled that it has been a exceedingly tough year for Thurgood Marshall. Two of its scholars, Zaire Kelly and Paris Brown, were killed by gunfire. The TMA executive director expressed how proud he was of his school pulling through as a community in the face of these tragedies. He was especially gratified to see his students bring national attention to the issue of violence in the inner city when Thurgood Marshall hosted students from Marjory Stoneman Doughlas High School to meet with them a few days before the March for Our Lives rally. You could feel the warmth and admiration that these children and adults have for one another in the way that the students congratulated Mr. Pohlman for his speech at the conclusion of the presentation. It was a truly magical night.