FOCUS Gala 2019: Building Our Future

My wife Michele and I were extremely fortunate to be able to attend last Thursday evening the 2019 FOCUS Gala held at the elegant North Hall of the Eastern Market. The rain was coming down in cold cylindrical pellets outside but inside the space was warm from all the handshakes and hugs given and received from men and women who for years have worked day in and day out to transform public education in the nation’s capital.

Inducted in the FOCUS Hall of Fame on this night were David Domenici and James Forman Jr., co-founders in 1997 of Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools and The See Forever Foundation. They were provided with plaques from Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, but in a sense there is no amount of recognition that would be too high for these individuals. We know that many charters enrolls students that other schools have found it impossible to educate, however Maya Angelou takes this mission to an entirely singular level. This school teaches those that have been in jail. From the school’s website, as described by the Washington Post:

“In the District of Columbia, Maya Angelou Public Charter School reaches out to students who have experienced substantial trauma in their lives by maintaining contacts with probation officers, social workers, special education advocates and community groups. Classes are small, expectations are high and a range of supportive services is in place to help kids make it.”

One of the schools that it manages actually sits inside D.C.’s long-term juvenile prison. In 2007, Mr. Domenici, after serving for a decade as both principal and executive director of Maya Angelou schools, became this facility’s founding principal. The narrative about Mr. Forman contained in the event’s glossy brochure states that the school, “which had been an abysmal failure, has been transformed under the leadership of the Maya Angelou staff; the court monitor overseeing D.C.’s juvenile system called the turnaround ‘extraordinary.'”

Also joining the esteemed group of individuals that comprise the Hall of Fame was Dr. Ramona Edelin, the long-time executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Her words on receiving this award are still echoing in my mind:

“We are under attack. If you don’t know it, please tune in to the mobilization that is taking place right now to avoid the erosion of your visions. The erosion of your autonomy. The erosion of the methodology you have chosen to make real – the promise you have given to your school family, your students, their families and the communities of which you serve. That’s what we are here for – that’s what I am here for. I am here for you because you do that better in the District of Columbia than anyone else does. Thank you. This is a centuries old struggle. It is not new. None of the obstacles, none of the issues will be a new one if you know your history. But we’re on the precipice of real change. You are having stunning success with the same students everybody else in this nation is ringing their hands and saying, “oh my, what can we do with them.” Well they were us, they are we and you know that and you are training, educating, developing leadership and making an impact. Now we need you to also answer a call to advocacy and policy when needed. It’s our job. We will do it. Everyday, day in and day out. But there are those times – and this is one of them – when we need you to join with us in that struggle. Let me just end with the words of the movement right now, ‘STAY WOKE.'”

Yes, we are under attack; from the unions, the press, politicians, and traditional school supporters. It has not been this bad since our local movement started over two decades ago. And what exactly are we being disparaged for doing? Here is how Maya Angelou characterizes its graduates:

  • Positive contributors to their families, communities and society
  • Young adults who possess mental-toughness and the skill-sets to be successful
  • Progress in future academic endeavors and compete in the work force
  • Leaders and change agents who will have the ability to compete in an ever changing society and beyond
  • Young adults who desire to excel and who are self-reliant
  • Young adults who are college and career-ready
  • Matured to become a well-rounded, culturally-aware adult
  • Adults who appreciate diversity
  • Self-sufficient members of society
  • Able to compete academically in an ever-changing environment

Enough is really enough.

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