Donald Hense guest commentary: Creating a College-Ready, Career-Success Culture

The following is a guest commentary by Donald Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School.

This summer, while I watched the latest graduates of Friendship Public Charter School’s two high schools, Collegiate Academy and Technology Preparatory Academy, take the stage to receive their diplomas, I reflected on how far the public charter school I founded has come.

It is worth remembering that, prior to the subsequent challenging and rewarding years, Friendship’s first two campuses opened their doors at a bleak time for the District of Columbia’s traditional public school system. More than half the students dropped out of a system that had effectively abandoned the children of its most disadvantaged neighborhoods to the many economic and social ills that plagued them. Students endured substandard schooling in unsafe environments and often dilapidated buildings, with devastating consequences that could last a lifetime.

Into this public policy disaster, which took such a toll on individuals and whole communities, Friendship arrived as a pioneer among the public charter schools that now educate nearly half of all D.C. public school students. The D.C. School Reform Act allowed charter schools to apply to provide tuition-free public education to District-resident students on a first-come, first-served basis. Publicly funded but operated independently of D.C. Public Schools, charters could design and develop their own educational programs while being accountable for improved student performance, unlike the then status-quo.

Friendship Collegiate Academy, which welcomed its first students at the turn of the new century, had a 90.3 percent on-time—within four years—graduation rate from 2012 to 2017. To place this in context, the D.C. charter high school rate is 73 percent, and 42 percent of DCPS students are currently deemed “on track” to graduate on time.
Collegiate also has 100 percent college-acceptance, accepted to colleges and universities such as Columbia, Princeton, University of Pennsylvania, Morehouse, Spelman, UCLA, UNC Chapel Hill, University of Maryland at College Park, University of Chicago, University of Virginia, The College of William and Mary, Emory, Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, The George Washington University, Howard, Bucknell University, Lafayette College, University of Rochester, University of Wisconsin at Madison, UC Davis, Northeastern, Tufts, Johns Hopkins, University of Michigan and others.

The Friendship flagship charter high school graduated one-fifth of all D.C. public charter school students between 2012 and 2017; and in D.C.’s Ward Seven, where the campus is located, the school accounted for nearly 40 percent of all DCPS and charter high school graduates.

This success is the product of a college-going culture that prepares children for the rigors of a college education, providing high standards in a caring and supportive environment. Key to this is the value added by Advanced Placement courses. The 17 AP courses that are authorized by the College Board at Collegiate Academy require much more academic rigor than citywide standardized tests while providing students with experience of college-level work and the opportunity to earn college credits in high school.

Ten years ago, Collegiate Academy was one of three high schools nationwide to be awarded the AP Inspiration Award by the College Board in recognition of its strong college readiness programs. In addition, Collegiate Academy was the first District of Columbia public high school to offer an Early College program in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation. Since then, more than 4,500 students have taken AP and college courses, with nearly 5,000 transferable college credits earned.

To further increase student success in AP and college courses, the College Board recently selected Friendship Collegiate Academy as the only DC high school, and one of 100 schools nationwide, to offer the pre-AP Program. This upcoming fall, all ninth-grade students will take four pre-AP courses in English, math, science and social studies, in addition to pre-AP in visual arts, dance and music.

Similar college-ready opportunities are available at Friendship’s Technology Preparatory Academy, located in D.C.’s Ward Eight, in a state-of-the-art $19 million multi-resourced, LEED-designated facility opened four years ago. Tech Prep had its first graduating class three years ago and provides multiple opportunities for students to develop the STEM—science, technology, engineering and math—skills required for success in tomorrow’s global, green economy.

Obviously, college preparation is of little value if students lack the financial and emotional supports to take advantage of this opportunity. Friendship has stepped up to the plate with mentoring for college applications; summer internships for college students; “posse” cohorts of students attending the same colleges; summer college experience for high school students; and socio-emotional care from pre-Kindergarten onward.

Since 2012, Collegiate and Tech Prep have competed for the highly-prized D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education Scholars Program and attended summer college programs at Barnard, Brown, Boston University, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, Duke, Emory, Harvard, Smith College, Stanford and Syracuse. These selective summer college programs at top-ranked universities across the country provide early exposure to college-level academics, the skill of navigating a college environment, and often the opportunity to earn college credit.

This early experience of college life combined with taking AP and college-level courses have helped students earn highly-competitive scholarships such as Posse, Gates Millennium, Trachtenberg, Presidential Scholarships, Milken, Torch, and numerous other merit-based grants and scholarships.

Friendship students also have been extraordinarily successful at securing D.C. Achievers Scholarships, which fund up to $50,000 toward college costs. From 2007 to 2017, Collegiate Academy students were awarded 36 percent of all such scholarships in the District, receiving nearly $45 million in total scholarship funds. This College Success Foundation program, led by Herb Tillery and funded by the Gates Foundation, awards scholarships that are a mix of college readiness, mentoring and support, and provide financial aid for scholars from low-income families, which are three in four families of D.C. students.

College preparation also is enhanced by the partnerships that Friendship has established with the University of Maryland at College Park, Arizona State University, Granite State College in New Hampshire and others. Here again, the preparation provided by AP and college courses prove their worth as students study close to 10 hours each week at college-level, thereby increasing college readiness and jump-starting college and their career by earning college credits on college campuses and online.

While data confirms the academic accomplishments of Friendship students and the opportunities that await future generations, perhaps the most rewarding aspect is to observe the achievements of individual students who are now alumni of this college-going culture.

In this regard, I think of Percee Goings, a Columbia University graduate, now working with a technology company in New York City; Daniel Spruill, Princeton Class of 2018 who is contemplating many job offers and a tech start-up opportunity; Kianna Murphy, who is studying for her PhD in English at the University of Pennsylvania and will begin teaching there in the fall; and Jay Cammon, who is a University of Pennsylvania student. I think of their fellow alumni, Posse scholars and college graduates Kirk Murphy and Brandon Irack-Edelin, who have established a scholarship program for upcoming Friendship students.

In all of this, I am reminded of the lifeline that creating a culture where students graduate college-ready provides, profoundly benefiting them and all of us.

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