Fight Night: The Power Within

The theme of the high-octane 2017 Fight for Children’s Fight Night was “The Power Within” and the 2,000 guests had no difficulties getting behind the idea.  The welcome reception was a grab bag of activities that ignited the senses.  After you obtained a beverage from one of the numerous open bars and nibbled on some food you could wander over to the virtual reality experience station where, with the addition of 3-D glasses, you became a hockey goalie defending against four other players.  Passing on either side of you would likely be a member of the cheerleading squad from the Mystics, Nationals, or Wizards.  In fact, even President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, one of the National’s contestants in their President’s races, hung out with the crowd, at one point dancing in front of the disc jockey on the dance floor with the Slapshot, the official mascot of the Washington Capitals.

This was the same room in which attendees bid on tables of silent auction items, which ranged from restaurant meals to sports memorabilia.  I gravitated admittingly on more than one occasion over to the Fogo de Chao Brazilian Steakhouse restaurant booth that provided all you could drink glasses of Caipirinha, the country’s national cocktail made fresh on the premises.

It was shortly thereafter that I ran into D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.  I wanted to know what she thought of the job Antwan Wilson was doing as DCPS Chancellor.  “Fantastic,” she exclaimed.

The number of people inside the hall was now really beginning to build.  Attendees could shoot baskets, hit golf balls onto a fairway, or ring a bell hitting a pivot with a large mallet.

I then had the chance to speak with Fight for Children president and chief executive officer Keith Gordon.  I asked him what excited him about tonight.  “Everything,” he responded without hesitation.  “We have rock music, mixed martial arts, and are even auctioning off a Washington National’s Chopper.  There is a special spirit to Fight Night.”

That spirit appeared to levitate the men in black tie into the main ballroom.  There in the center was the first change from last year. The customary four-cornered ring had been replaced by one with 10 sides surrounded by fencing, a decagon I would later learn it is called, to hold one of the four MMA bouts sponsored by the Professional Fighters League.  If you have never seen MMA matches, I think a fair way to describe them as boxing on steroids in which participants use their feet as well as their gloved hands to battle.

The entertainment included Laith Al-Saadi, from NBC’s “The Voice,” singing great American songbook pieces from a stage at the back of the room.  I paid my respects to Bret Baier, the Fox News political director and anchor of “Special Report.”  Sitting not far from him was Kaya Henderson, the former DCPS Chancellor who seconded Mayor Bowser’s positive opinion of the work of the man who replaced her.  It was also great to see Michela English, the former president and CEO of Fight for Children.  She had kind words for me as she always did during the decade that she was in her position.  I was especially grateful to speak to Father John, the CEO of the Archdiocese of Washington, who I met when I participated this year with Catholic Charities’ “Cup of Joe” event that assembles breakfasts for temporarily homeless individuals staying in one of the organization’s Washington, D.C. shelters.  The activity is named after Fight for Children founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr.

Smiling throughout the festivities, and seated ringside, was the vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment and Fight for Children chairman Raul Fernandez.  As multitudes of friends and associates came to greet him he certainly appeared to be ecstatic about the overwhelming strong support around this annual gala.

The program included, as is customary, an introduction of the legends of boxing, a live auction, and an acrobatic dance routine by the Washington Redskin’s cheerleaders.  The headlining entertainment was provided by the hard-driving Royal Machines, performing from the same space that had only recently hosted the fighters.  Individuals meandered around the space in lively conversation, cigar smoke billowed in the room, hostesses in red gowns brought refreshments to the tables, and foot-long steaks filled the dinner plates.  All was apparently perfectly well with Fight Night, after 28 years of proudly raising money to support low-income children’s health and education.

After midnight, it was time to move over to the after party.

 

 

 

Tonight is Fight Night

This evening, I will once again attend the spectacle that is Fight for Children’s Fight Night, the 28th year for this gala that has raised more than $60 million dollars for children’s health and education.  The event was created by Fight for Children founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr.  Over 2,000 guests will be entertained in the Washington Hilton ballroom which will feature for the first time mixed martial arts (MMA) match-ups through the Professional Fighters League.  In fact, the bouts can even be seen live-streamed at ProfessionalFightersLeague.com, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, via the FITE TV app, and on the Kiswe Mobile App.  The musical performance features the popular rock group Royal Machines, a band that includes music legends Mark McGrath, Chris Chaney, Josh Freese, Donovan Leitch, Billy Morrison, Steve Stevens, and special guest Sebastian Bach.

This year, more than ever, we could use the presence of Mr. Robert, who sadly passed away due to brain cancer at the end of 2011.

There are numerous tremendous contributions we think about when we remember this man.  The $150 million gift he arranged six years ago from the government of Abu Dhabi to D.C.’s Children’s National Health Center comes immediately to mind.  His establishment of the Washington Scholarship Fund, the precursor to the Opportunity Scholarship Program, provided tuition scholarships to children living in poverty in the nation’s capital. The Three-Sector Approach that he championed, the Congressional funding that gives equal dollars to DCPS, charters, and the voucher plan, lives on to this day and resulted in the OSP being reauthorized last year.  Fight for Children, under the strong leadership of president and CEO Keith Gordon, is continuing Mr. Robert’s mission by focusing on improving the pedagogy taking place in early childhood education in all of our city’s schools, whether they be traditional, charter, or private.  I interviewed Mr. Gordon earlier this year

But there are many less headline-grabbing actions he took during his life to make this world a better place.  An astonishing example was recently provided by Children’s Hospital’s president and chief executive officer Kurt Newman in his fantastic new book “Healing Children.”  It details, among other heartwarming stories spanning Dr. Newman’s 30 years as a pediatric surgeon, Mr. Robert’s fierce determination to improve the patient experience that came as a result of his son having surgery under the Children’s CEO’s care.

There is one more of his accomplishments I would like to highlight.  Mr. Robert had a great many friends in his lifetime across diverse spheres.  Among them were entertainers such as Quincy Jones and Babyface.  In the political world he was extremely close to General Colin Powell, and he convinced D.C. Mayor Marion Barry to support school vouchers.   Businessmen such as Raul Fernandez, vice chairman of Monumental Sports & Entertainment who is also chairman of Fight for Children’s board; Kevin Plank, whose company Under Armour is a Fight Night sponsor; and the late Jim Kimsey, one of the founders of AOL, were associates.  In fact, the lineup of people just trying to greet Mr. Robert at this annual fundraiser could last into the early morning hours.

Those who loved Joe Robert crossed party lines, races, religions, and ethnic backgrounds.  He had this purely magical ability and undeniable spirit around a supreme effort to bring individuals together and get them to donate their time and money to assist those less fortunate than themselves.  It is a quality of mankind we so desperately need today.

Gates Foundation to provide $10 million in school vouchers for students in D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8 to attend college

Washington Post writers Mandy McLaren and Shira Stein reveal today that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will provide $10 million in school vouchers to increase the number of students from Washington D.C.’s Wards 7 and 8 who attend college through the D.C. College Access Program.  D.C. CAP is the program started a couple of decades ago by former Washington Post publisher Donald Graham.  In January 2015, when Mr. Graham announced that he was stepping down from leading the nonprofit organization, the editors of the Post recognized him for his achievement:

“In 1999, fewer than 1 in 3 D.C. high school graduates enrolled in college, and a mere 15 percent went on to get a degree. Today, 62 percent of high school graduates enroll in college — on par with the national average — and 44 percent graduate. D.C. CAP is unique among college access programs in that every student — regardless of family circumstance or academic achievement — is eligible, but those who have benefited most are from low-income, minority, single-parent households. Many have been the first in their families to attend college.

Scholarship money alone could not have achieved this record. The program offers high school counseling, then helps college students register and stays with them as they adjust to higher ed. That other programs have adopted similar methods is further evidence of how Mr. Graham helped pioneer an idea into something with lasting significance. Not many other individuals have had such a positive impact on so many lives — and with so little self-congratulation.”

The money, to be paired with another $1 million from Monumental Sports & Entertainment and together with $7 million from D.C. CAP’s fundraising efforts, will allow scholarships to be awarded up to $25,000 for low-income children to attend college.  This does not include dollars allocated through the D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant program, another initiative promoted by Mr. Graham, that provides tuition assistance for kids from D.C. to attend public universities across the country, private colleges in the nation’s capital, and historically black colleges.

The aim is to help about 600 scholars from eight schools that include Hart Middle School,  Kramer Middle School, Anacostia High School, Ballou High School, H.D. Woodson High School, Maya Angelou Public Charter School, Friendship Collegiate Academy Public Charter School and Thurgood Marshall Academy Public Charter School.  Ms. McLaren and Ms. Stein indicate that “program participants must also attend Saturday sessions throughout the year and a six-week summer academy, where they will receive extra support in math and ­English language arts and preparation for college entrance exams.”

This is the first time that the program will include middle school students, which is being accomplished with the help of the College Success Foundation, the group run by Herb Tillery.

There was some fear that when Mr. Graham stepped down from the helm of D.C. CAP that it would loose momentum.  But obviously, when you have someone like Ted Leonsis from Monumental Sports & Entertainment now in charge and a board of directors that includes Raul Fernandez, also from Monumental Sports, who is also the chairman of Fight for Children, together with Katherine and David Bradley, the founders of CityBridge Foundation, you know that the organization is in truly excellent hands.

The Post indicated that Ward 7 and 8 students and parents learned of the scholarships at a lunch yesterday.  A formal announcement about the Gates contribution will come today.

Next week is the inaugural Fight for Children Week

Fight for Children, known for sponsoring the annual fundraiser Fight Night, is trying something new and innovative in an effort to focus attention on the importance of early childhood education.  Fight for Children Week is being held Monday, September 25th through Friday, September 29th and includes activities for community members, educators, business leaders, and policy makers.

Let’s start with ways that the community can show support for Fight for Children’s mission “to ensure that all kids in Washington, D.C., especially those in the highest need areas, receive a quality early education and a solid foundation for future success.”  There are promotions at multiple area restaurants where a portion of proceeds will go to support Fight for Children:

  • Month of September:  $1 from the sale of each slice of the Pie of the Month from Joe’s Seafood, Prime Steak & Seafood,
  • Week of September 24th to 30th:  Proceeds from the sale of all of D.C.’s Taylor Gourmet’s Cookies for Children,
  • Monday, September 25th:  10% of sales from Cava at Dupont Circle during the hours of 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. when you mention Fight for Children at check-out,
  • Wednesday, September 27th:  &pizza will donate $2 from the sale of every pizza from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Chinatown, Dupont Circle, and Columbia Heights locations but the digital flyer must be shown at checkout, and
  • Thursday, September 28th:  20% of sales from the Roti Modern Mediterranean at 1629 K Street from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. but the digital flyer must be shown at checkout.

Follow Fight for Children on Facebook and Twitter to obtain the digital flyers.

Events for educators, business leaders, and policy makers include:

  • Tuesday, September 26:  Coffee, Conversation, and Controversy is an invitation-only breakfast series that will bring people together to discuss important topics around early education.  The goal of the discussion “is to identify concrete actions that can be taken by key members of the community to further improve the educational experiences and outcomes for D.C.’s youngest citizens.”  The first session will focus on the subject of implicit bias and will be moderated by Dr. Walter S. Gilliam, the Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and Associate Professor of Child Psychiatry and Psychology at the Yale University Child Study Center.
  • Wednesday, September 27:  Organizations are encouraged to have employees wear jeans to work and make a donation to Fight for Children while communicating the importance of early childhood education.  There will be a special media event on this day and people who share pictures of themselves in jeans on Facebook and Twitter using the hashtag #Jeans4Children could win tickets to Fight Night.
  • Thursday, September 28th:  A daylong conference for teachers and leaders on topics such as Quality Project-Based Learning in the Early Years, Children Are Citizens: Reflecting on a Year of Inquiry, Global Artifacts:  Using Objects to Help Kids Consider Perspectives, Leading Their Own Learning:  Early Elementary Explorations of Their Neighborhood, and Seeing With All Our Senses.  The event is being held at the FHI 360 Conference Center.
  • Friday, September 29th:  Volunteer at Eagle Academy PCS, a Fight for Children partner school.  More information to come.

Additional details about these events can be found here and at the Fight for Children website.

The organization highlights the following information about the importance of high quality early childhood education.  For low-income children lacking this type of schooling:

  • 25% more likely to drop out of school
  • 40% more likely to become a teenage parent
  • 70% more likely to be arrested for a violent crime

It looks like a truly exciting week to help our youngest neighbors get off to a great start in life.

 

 

Exclusive interview with Keith Gordon, president & CEO of Fight for Children

I had the pleasure recently of sitting down with Keith Gordon, president and chief executive officer of Fight for Children.  Mr. Gordon is no stranger to this organization.  He joined the non-profit in 2015 as the chief operating officer.  The story of how Mr. Gordon became associated with Fight for Children is fascinating.

Mr. Gordon was working in Washington, DC as president of the National Football League Players Incorporated, which is the for-profit subsidiary of the National Football League Players Association (NFLPA).  He was in charge of all business units including player licensing, sponsorship, marketing, events, and procurement.  In his six years in this role he grew the NFLPI to become a $150 million enterprise.  Also around this interval, Mr. Gordon moved his wife Mary and 18 month old son Matthew to the area from his hometown of Phoenix, Arizona, where he soon welcomed a daughter, Mia, to their growing family.  While he absolutely loved the job, he soon found that the travel demands including constant air and train trips became very disruptive to his family life.  As Mr. Gordon says, “my wife and children were growing and learning how to live without me, and I had a choice to make.”  After six years of trekking around the globe on behalf of the NFLPA, Mr. Gordon made a bold decision, announcing that he would leave the NFLPA following the Super Bowl in Phoenix to spend more time with his family.  At that moment, Mr. Gordon did not commit to another firm, opting instead to consult for a variety of organizations while exploring opportunities in the area.

During this period a recruiter contacted him about an opening at Fight for Children for a chief program officer.  Having attended Fight Night over the years, Fight for Children’s annual fundraiser, he was already familiar with the event and parent organization.  He vividly remembers attending Fight Night in 2014 after his conversation with the recruiter, and viewing the fundraiser now through a very different lens – that of a producer. Through his prior experience at the NFLPA and his sports marketing background with several advertising agencies, combined with seven years at the marketing and business operations group at the National Basketball Association (NBA), he began to imagine the opportunity and the strategic direction in which this gala could grow, in particular with Under Armour as the presenting sponsor.

In addition, as if the stars were aligned for the future direction of his career, Mr. Gordon had been active for several years with YPO, a global networking and educational membership community of chief executives.  Fight For Children’s founder, Joseph E. Robert, Jr., was also associated with YPO, along with several of his close friends including Raul Fernandez, the current chairman of the Fight for Children board of directors.  With these connections in place, the recruiter convinced him to have a conversation with Michela English, then president and CEO of Fight for Children.

Ms. English and Mr. Gordon met and had what Mr. Gordon described as “an honest conversation” about where Fight for Children was and where it was going, although not everything was mapped out at that point.  He was hired into the role of chief operating officer as Ms. English recognized the need for a professional manager and business person who could also build upon Mr. Robert’s vision for the entity whose mission is to “fight to ensure low-income children in Washington, D.C. receive a great education and stay healthy so they can learn.”

I inquired of Mr. Gordon what it was like to work with Ms. English, who retired as president and CEO at the end of 2016.  He answered without hesitation.  “The importance of Michela to Fight for Children cannot be overstated,” Mr. Gordon responded forcefully.  “After the passing away of Mr. Robert in December 2011, the company could have simply vanished.  Instead, she provided stability and credibility to the organization, and between Michela and Mr. Fernandez they successfully transitioned a family foundation to a lean, purposeful, smart nonprofit.  She taught me that there is much more that we can do to help people.  Michela has an amazingly positive attitude and outlook.  She has more professional relationships than almost anyone you’ve ever met. Everything she did was intentional in protecting Joe Robert’s legacy as a philanthropist.  For her, it was all about others and she was never self-serving in any manner.”

According to Mr. Gordon, over the last two years Fight for Children has focused on strengthening early childhood education and supporting children so that they have a path to success.  He pointed out that Washington, D.C. is already leading the United States in providing access to education for kids between the ages of three and eight, so now the issue of the quality of learning has become paramount.  “We know that if we are going to eliminate the academic achievement gap we have got to start early,” Mr. Gordon asserted.  “We now have 70 percent of the city’s three year olds and 84 percent of four year olds enrolled in school.  However, research such as The Office of the State Superintendent of Education 2016 report entitled “The State of Pre-K in the District of Columbia” and articles from the think tank New America continue to demonstrate that there is more to be done to improve Pre-K instructional quality in the District.”

Mr. Gordon reminded me that four years ago Fight for Children created their first of many programmatic initiatives with the vision of making “early education in Washington, D.C. the best in the country.”  As part of the recently released three-year strategic plan, the FFC CEO detailed that there are now three areas of concentration for the organization.  “The first,” Mr. Gordon elucidated, “is to improve the quality of instruction taking place in the schools.  Our second aim is to provide specific student supports that will increase the probability of future success.  Our third goal is to build a solid community commitment to early childhood education.”

As far as specific actions that are tied to the realization of these targets, Mr. Gordon provided examples including ongoing improvement in the quality and impact of programs like Joe’s Champs, providing highly targeted interventions directly for students where they are in their schools, exploring opportunities for high quality summer learning experiences, and advocating for the continued support of early childhood education from the community.

One of Fight For Children’s longest running programs, Joe’s Champs, has already had a tremendous impact.  Since inception in 2013, more than 30 schools have taken advantage of the program which includes 55 educational partners who have received 80 hours a year of professional development and coaching.  There are currently 14 schools enrolled in Joe’s Champs including traditional, charter, and private schools.

As Fight for Children continues to refine its programs including Joe’s Camp’s, the organization plans to conduct a longitudinal study to help measure the impact of these initiatives.  In the fall, Fight for Children will also start a new social issues forum called Coffee Conversation and Controversy which several times a year will tackle challenging issues facing the education sector.

Mr. Gordon is exceptionally proud of his eight-member team that is pushing hard to reform education in the nation’s capital and is not afraid to take risks.  He spoke passionately about the intentional and carefully aligned efforts that are agnostic to school sector be it traditional, charter, or private.  All of this is being done because, in the words of Fight for Children Founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr., “every child, regardless of his or her circumstances, deserves an equal shot at a great education.”

My take, after spending a couple of hours with such an energetic and upbeat individual, is that Fight for Children is in extremely competent hands.

A thrilling EdFest 2016

Last Saturday my wife Michele and I had the great pleasure of heading over to the DC Armory to attend EdFest 2016.  Picture this:  hundreds of parents with children in tow visiting row after row of information booths representing public schools in the nation’s capital.  The timing of the event is perfect in that the common lottery, My School DC, opens today.

This is the third time for this annual gathering, which in the past was known as the Charter School Expo.  In one of the most visually symbolic manifestations of cooperation between the two sectors, charters and traditional schools not only share the same space; they are located right next to each other due to being positioned in alphabetical order.  In fact, you really had to pay close attention to determine whether a particular school was under the umbrella of the DC Public Charter School Board or DCPS.

Because of the significance of the occasion the leaders of each branch were in attendance.  Scott Pearson, PCSB executive director, traversed the crowd, speaking to many of the charter leaders manning booths.  Jennie Niles, the Deputy Mayor for Education, also greeted the guests.  I was extremely interested in talking to Antwan Wilson, Mayor Bowser’s nominee to be the next DCPS Chancellor, but Ms. Niles stated that he had been sent home because lately he had been seeing more of her than his own wife.  The Deputy Mayor added that she was proud of the job Mr. Wilson had done before his confirmation hearing before the D.C. Council just last Thursday.

We also had the pleasure of seeing Keith Gordon, the always upbeat chief operating officer of Fight for Children.  He was there with his two kids and if you include Mr. Pearson and Ms. Niles along with the two of us then astonishingly you had together five attendees of last week’s exceptionally elegant retirement party for Michela English, Fight for Children’s president and chief executive officer, held at the RIS Restaurant in Northwest.  Mr. Gordon becomes head of the organization January 1, 2017.

But the absolute highlight for us was visiting the folks from IDEA Public Charter School.  Michele was greeted as a rock star because she had written not too long ago a Washington Post real estate section cover story about the school’s partnership with the Academy of Construction and Design, which trains students at the charter to be able to work as electricians, carpenters, and mechanics.  Justin Rydstrom, the head of the school, welcomed us warmly between talking to prospective school parents, and Shelly Karriem, the program director, joined Michele and about five other excited staff members and scholars in a group photograph.  Ms. Karriem pointed out that right behind us was a framed copy of Michele’s article that Mr. Rydstrom had prepared for all to see.

We also had the chance to converse with representatives from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools and Serving our Children, the group that now administers the Opportunity Scholarship Program.  In fact, there were so many people to talk to it was exceedingly difficult to leave.  We are already looking forward to next year.

Fight Night 2.0

Keith Gordon, Fight for Children’s chief operating officer who at the beginning of the new year will become the head of the organization, promised me that this year’s Fight Night, the organization’s acclaimed annual fundraiser held last Thursday, would be something special.  His comment was an understatement.  I’ve been to about eight of these events held each year at the Washington Hilton, but the 2016 version was truly exceptional in spectacle and execution.

If you have never been fortunate enough to join the gala I think I have finally come up with an analogy that will help you understand why it sells out each and every fall: attending Fight Night is like landing in New York’s Times Square.  There are so many sights and sounds that the senses quickly become filled to the brim with excitement and anticipation for what is taking place right in front of you.

First, I must start with one of the main improvements.  Like years ago, the cocktail reception once again includes food.  Lots of it.  When Under Armour took over the event one thing that disappeared from the open bar period were the appetizers.  Thankfully, now they are back, although I still miss the lamb chops.

Then there are the guests.  Senator Mark Warner gave me a warm greeting as did Fight for Children chairman Raul Fernandez.  Mr. Fernandez told me how excited he was about tonight and I compliment his quotes about the extravaganza such as this one from the Washington Post, “It’s like planning a wedding every year and at the end of the night you’re exhausted.”

An extremely relaxed Dr. Kurt Newman, president and CEO of Children’s National Health System and a Fight for Children board member, joked that I was a big shot for being in attendance.  He kindly invites me every year to the tribute that his hospital pays to the legacy of Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the philanthropist who created Fight for Children and originated Fight Night.  He passed away at the end of 2011.

The reception area that included the food, sorry I mentioned it again, also contained the silent auction filled with sports memorabilia. The fundraising effort has been augmented with games such as basketball and hockey puck shooting courtesy of our local teams.  Cheerleaders from these organizations posed for pictures with the guests.

It was then on to the main ballroom.  Attendees socialized between the boxing matches taking place in the famous ring that also serves as a stage positioned in the middle of the grand space and topped by an electronic billboard across its perimeter.  I ran into Bret Baier, FOX News Channel’s chief political anchor and anchor of the show Special Report.  I use Mr. Baier’s New York Times bestselling book about his son, “Special Heart”, to provide leadership lessons to my staff back at my job.  Also making her way toward me was D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser.  After she finished talking to ex-Mayor Adrian Fenty, I asked her if she had selected a new Chancellor for DCPS.  She stated that she had not picked one yet, after which I proposed that she give the job to me.  I told her that the first thing I would do would be to turn all schools into charters.  “All school into charters,” Ms. Bowser smiled, “I don’t know about that.”

Attention turned to Kevin Plank as he took his seat next to the ring.  The Under Armour founder, CEO, and chairman who I interviewed just last week for my book about Joe Robert, seemed to especially enjoy the match of Muay Thai Boxing, boxing in which the fighters can also use their feet.  The approximately 2,000 men attired in black-tie together with a smaller proportion of elegantly women were soon served dinner, including as is tradition, foot long steaks. Cigar smoke filled the air.  Hostesses in red gowns delivered cocktails to the guests.

There was also a plethora of musical entertainment.  America’s Got Talent’s Sal Valentinetti serenaded the attendees with Frank Sinatra-syle songs as they entered the ballroom.  Sheila E. gave a highly energetic performance from a stage at the south end of the hall, and once the boxing had concluded, Foreigner brought the crowd to its feet.  I didn’t realize how many tremendous hits this band has had in its history.

Past midnight it was time for Fight Night After Dark for dessert.  This was the first year the after party was held at the Washington Hilton.  As soon as I arrived someone was tugging at my arm.  It was Kaya Henderson, the recently department DCPS chancellor.  I asked her whether she was working in education and she said that she was currently simply visiting family.  I told her that we needed her back.  I then ran back into Mr. Gordon.  I asked him how he thought the evening went.  He could hardly contain his exhilaration, “We had the chance to showcase the future of Fight Night.  While the feedback has been incredible the best compliment by far has been that Joe would have loved it.”

He most certainly would have.  The event raised over $5.1 million to support the health and education of low-income children in Washington D.C. and Baltimore.

Tonight is Fight for Children’s Fight Night 2016

Tonight is Fight for Children’s Fight Night fundraiser and I’m extremely fortunate that I will once again be in attendance.  By tradition the blog post on this day talks about the life and legacy of Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who founded Fight for Children twenty six years ago and created this event.  But today I want to write about someone else.

At the end of this year Fight for Children’s president and chief executive officer Michela English is stepping down from her role.  After a decade of leading this organization she will transition to becoming a member of its board of directors.  I have observed Ms. English’s work for years and I must say that she may be one of the most impressive individuals I have ever met. Here are some of her observations contained in a press release announcing the change:

“During my 10 years with Fight for Children, the organization has successfully transitioned from a founder-driven organization to a sustainable, independent nonprofit with a highly skilled and professional staff, and a strong, diverse group of business and civic leaders who serve on our Board of Directors.  Our annual revenues have increased nearly 80% and Fight Night continues to grow each year behind strong support and ongoing commitment from presenting sponsor, Under Armour.  We have also diversified and continue to grow our funding base with contributions from foundations, corporations, individual philanthropists, and government organizations.”

The paragraph does not remotely approach doing justice to what Ms. English has accomplished.  When Mr. Robert passed away at the end of 2011 Fight for Children could have celebrated its contributions and then closed up shop and shut the doors.  Instead, Ms. English, in keeping with the fierce determination and positive spirit of Mr. Robert, refocused Fight for Children’s mission to emphasize strengthening early childhood education and health, and aligned its giving to support this goal.  Her nine member staff attains results other groups would need three times the number of employees to achieve.  When you go to an event hosted by Fight for Children you can be categorically certain that it will exemplify class, kindness, and professionalism.  Moreover, Ms. English has been especially gracious to me personally.

Fight for Children has raised and leveraged over $450 million for education and healthcare programs for low-income children in Washington D.C.  Fight for Children’s fundraising events and other initiatives have directly raised $100 million. It has also been a catalyst in helping the District of Columbia obtain an additional $350 million in federal funding for local education programs.

She has reached all of these milestones in a quiet dignified way that does not hint for even a second of the bare energy of Mr. Robert.  But powerful she has been, whether we are talking about assisting in the development of DCPS’s Impact teacher evaluation system, creating Joe’s Champs to train educators to teach young scholars, providing Quality School Awards to encourage the replication of best practices in the classroom, or as a member of the selection committee for the new DCPS chancellor.

The reins of Fight for Children are being left in the highly capable and energetic hands of chief operating officer Keith Gordon, who was recruited a year ago to play this role.  Mr. Raul Fernandez has led the board of directors since 2012.

Ms. English does not consider her move a retirement.  She will continue to contribute as a board member on numerous nonprofits and to advise businesses.  For instance, she mentions in the press release that she is serving as “a strategic advisor and mentor for growing organizations, such as the ed tech startup Planet 3.”

Here’s to a job well done.  I hope to share a congratulatory toast with Ms. English at this year’s sold-out Fight Night Gala.

The Fight for Children Family Engagement Conference

Last Thursday I had the tremendous opportunity, along with about 160 teachers from DCPS, charters, and private schools, to attend Fight for Children’s Family Engagement Conference offered in partnership with the Flamboyan Foundation.  It was held in the sophisticated FHI 360 Conference Center.  For years I have been familiar with the impressive work of the Flamboyan Foundation, and its emphasis on improving parental engagement in their children’s academic life through teacher home visits.  But on this morning I saw the organization’s contributions from a different level.

During the event I sat in on a packed Anti-Bias Family breakout session where I was exposed to some startling facts.  For example, it was explained that the schools serving the most African -American and Latino Students are twice as likely to employ teachers who are new to the profession.  In addition, it was revealed that in 2011, black girls were suspended 18 percent more than Caucasian girls and were 48 percent more likely to be suspended from school more than once.  It was pointed out that it is statistics such as these that led former United States Education Secretary to remark that “The undeniable truth is that the everyday educational experience for many students of color violates the principle of equity at the heart of the American promise. It is our collective duty to change that.”

Participants also learned the difference between equality and equity.  Equality, according to the moderators of the seminar, refers to having the same opportunity.  But equity, as I was soon to discover, means a freedom from bias or favoritism.  We spent time in groups discussing one of the many “Equity Scenarios” that hung on walls around the room.  These were imagined situations that could take place in the classroom. The exercise was exceptionally useful in helping us identify our own prejudices that we hold either implicitly or explicitly.  The major theme of the workshop was to investigate ways in which the instructors can support the five family roles that accelerate student learning.  These were identified as communicate high expectations, monitor the child’s performance, support learning, guide the child’s education, and advocate for the child.

I moved from the conference room to an adjoining space to hear a talk entitled “Difficult Conversations – How to Preserve Trust.”  During group discussions, role playing, and lectures by a DCPS teacher and Flamboyan staff member we covered the components of effective reactive communication, learned how to develop an action plan to prepare for future reactive communications, and most importantly, were exposed to strategies to maintain a positive relationship when having difficult conversations with families.  All of this was supported by a detailed documented reactive communication process protocol.  In addition, the subject of how difficult conversations relate to equity issues was intertwined throughout the conversation.

The members of the audience, including Fight for Children CEO and president Michela English and the executive director of the Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom Public Charter School Erika Bryant, were eager participants and demonstrated a serene seriousness in trying to absorb as much information as possible.  There was also much laughter.

My main takeaway from this complimentary conference for the heroes that are educating children living in poverty in the nation’s capital is that Washington, D.C. is exceedingly fortunate to have groups like Fight for children and the Flamboyan Foundation providing highly valuable professional development for our public school teachers.  With continued efforts such as this the academic achievement gap will one day soon be a thing of the past.

The Fight for Children Annual School Luncheon

Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of attending Fight for Children’s Annual School Luncheon which was a celebration of the schools that have joined this organization’s efforts to improve early childhood education in the nation’s capital.  For those who may not know, Fight for Children, though its Joe’s Champs program,  is now working with 29 schools teaching 4,100 students ages three through eight, 84 percent of whom quality for free or reduced cost meals.  Joe’s Champs is of course named for Fight for Children’s founder Joseph E. Robert, Jr. who passed away at the end of 2011.

You can tell the stature of any non-profit in this town by who is in attendance at its events, and by this standard Fight for Children is obviously at the pinnacle.  Mayor Bowser was there as well as all of Washington D.C.’s leaders in public education.  These included my friend DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, Public Charter School Board executive director Scott Pearson, PCSB deputy director Naomi Rubin DeVeaux, State Superintendent of Education Hanseul Kang, and Deputy Mayor for Education Jennie Niles. 

When you arrived at the picturesque Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center’s Pavilion Room the lobby was filled with placards honoring the seven schools that comprise the first cohort of Joe’s Champs schools that joined the effort in 2013.  These include DC Bilingual PCS, Chamberlain Elementary Campus Friendship PCS, Southeast Elementary Academy Friendship PCS, Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS, Potomac Prep PCS, Ingenuity Prep PCS, and Powell Elementary.  I immediately met Marsha McLean, one of the eight Joe Champs school mentors.  Ms. McLean enthusiastically explained that she has been with the program since its inception, paired with the Chamberlain and Woodridge Elementary Campuses of Friendship PCS.  She described her excitement in working with the principals and assistant principals of these institutions, bringing resources and coaching to their instruction of pre-Kindergarten students.  We even discussed our mutual respect for Friendship’s founder Donald Hense.  In fact, I was able to speak to several of the mentors gathered for this occasion, and I have to say that if even half of their energy is absorbed by these young scholars then there are universities in this country that are going to have to find some extra spaces for their new eager undergraduates.

I was greeted warmly as usual by Fight For Children’s president and chef executive officer Michela English.  Standing next to her was chief operating officer Keith Gordon.  I have been observing Mr. Gordon for a year now and I don’t think I’ve met anyone who smiles more than he does.  It is abundantly clear that he has ever had a bad day.  Mr. Gordon related that there was interesting news that would be coming out of today’s event.

The meal started with a performance by about 16 three and four year olds from Elsie Whitlow Stokes.  The extremely well-behaved students performed a couple of songs for the crowd, in French.  I never repeat myself but I will here.  These were 16 three and four year olds singing to the audience in French.

Ms. Bowser then addressed the crowd and congratulated Fight for Children for the group’s 26 years of helping to transform public education in Washington, D.C.   It is a crucial endeavor.  The luncheon’s program states that even after the city’s two decades of school reform 75 percent of third graders are still not proficient in reading and math.  This is why Fight for Children, with its nine staff members and budget of about $7 million a year, is trying to ensure that “every third grader has the necessary foundation to succeed in school.”

Next on the program was a fascinating panel interview of three Joe’s Champ’s school leaders moderated by ABC7 and News Channel 8 Anchor Jummy Olabanji.  This is the second consecutive year Ms. Olabanji has been the master of ceremonies, and joining her on stage were Anna Hickman from Ingenuity Prep PCS, Khabria Hundley representing the Chamberlain Campus of Friendship PCS, and Kira Moore of Powell Elementary.  There were many highlights of this discussion for me including the detailing of the Joe’s Champ training around Professional Learning Communities, which I understood to be a description of a highly engaging form of professional development that includes monthly discussions among teachers of public policy, research, and practices around early childhood education.  Ms. Moore spoke of a project methodology to teaching her kids which is driven by the students’ interests.  The astounding result, she informed us, are children that will not stop asking questions.  She portrayed it as bringing about”a culture of wonder” to the classroom.  Ms. Hickman informed us of the collaboration between the pre-K and Kindergarten classes at her school, with five year olds visiting the younger pupils to explain the fascinating things they would be learning in their first year of elementary school.

The program concluded with Ms. English making the announcement that Joe’s Champs is now ready to graduate to Version 2.0.  The Fight for Children CEO revealed that the program would expand beyond early childhood instruction and now assist students up to the third grade.  The first group of three extraordinary fortunate facilities to take part in this enhancement, Ms. English disclosed, are DC Bilingual, Elsie Whitlow Stokes, and Friendship’s Chamberlain.  The audience wasted no time in expressing their universal approval of her declaration through ecstatic applause.