Donald Hense
Donald Hense, founder and chairman of the board of Friendship Public Charter Schools in D.C. (Courtesy of National Alliance for Public Charter Schools)

The African American community’s fight for quality education is a 12-months-a-year struggle, and every month — not just Black History Month — is a great time to reflect on what’s working and who is successful in fighting for quality public education in our community. Donald Hense and the Friendship Charter Network are worthy of recognition.

Hense is founder and board chairman of the Friendship Charter Network, the largest African American-led charter school network in America. Hense’s accomplishment is significant, because, while over 80 percent of charter school students are Black or Latino, fewer than 10 percent of charter schools are founded and led by Blacks or Latinos, according to a study by the Brookings Institute.

Three-quarters of students enrolled in Friendship schools in D.C. are from Wards 7 and 8, the city’s two poorest areas, and nearly all are African American. Their success is reflected in their continuous improvement on standardized tests. Most recently, Hense and his team celebrated when five of Friendship’s 12 D.C. schools were rated Tier 1 by the Public Charter School Board — the highest of three ratings a charter can earn.

A native of St. Louis and graduate of Morehouse College and Stanford University, Hense has long understood the power of a quality education. But for years he had no interest in working in K-12 education. He was serving as executive director of Friendship House Association, a nonprofit serving low-income families in Washington D.C., when he was approached by an executive from a local charter operator about using Friendship House to charter a school. After some reflection, he agreed to transfer his experience fighting intergenerational poverty to the fight for quality public education.

Hense made history as the first African American to win a grant from New Schools Venture Fund, which supports charter school founders. Friendship was among the first group of schools chartered by the D.C. Public Charter School Board in 1998. Twenty years later, it has 12 campuses for students in grades Pre-K3 to 12 in D.C., an online school, and schools in Baton Rouge, La., Baltimore, and Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

In 1996 the U.S. Congress created the Public Charter School Board (PCSB), which authorizes Friendship’s D.C. charters. The board does not to operate schools but has the power to contract with charter operators, creating a system in which parents can choose the school that best fits their child’s needs. The charter board shuts down or replaces schools that repeatedly fail to achieve their performance goals, and it encourages those that are most effective to grow and open new schools.

PCSB is a leader in its field, considered by experts one of the best authorizers in the nation. To date, it contracts with 66 independent organizations — all of them nonprofits — to operate 123 schools, which educate 47 percent of public school students in the city.

The on-time graduation rate for charter schools in D.C. was 73 percent in 2017, higher than the city average but over 20 percentage points higher than D.C.’s average when Hense opened his first school. Charters serve students who are just as disadvantaged as those in district schools, on average, but outperform them on most performance measures.

Thanks to competition from charters, the district has also improved dramatically over the past dozen years. Faced with the loss of about a quarter of district students to charters by 2007, Mayor Adrian Fenty convinced the city council to do away with the elected school board and give him control of the district. He appointed Michelle Rhee as chancellor of D.C. Public Schools (DCPS), and she began a process of profound reform that has continued to this day. The district has improved faster than any other urban district whose students take the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the only national test, since 2007. Yet D.C.’s charters have improved even faster.

Hense is proud of Friendship and of education reform efforts in Washington, but he is not ready to celebrate.

“We declared victory too soon,” he says. “Fifteen years of education reform is not an institution.”

To Hense, the fight to reform school systems serving African American students should include more leaders of color. For years he held a monthly meeting of Black charter school leaders in D.C. to talk about their experiences and discuss lessons learned, but it “fizzled out” after young leaders lost interest.

“We brought in second and third generation [leaders] and forgot to show them that [African Americans] need to work together to get things done,” he says. “New [leaders] have to participate in Black organizations.”

In spite of a few setbacks, Hense is still dedicated to supporting African Americans interested in opening their own charter schools. The greatest obstacle to their success, he believes, is lack of experience in management. A potential founder needs “a good plan and a good board of directors. It’s best to go in [to the charter application process] with a strong [management] team.”

Fortunately, there are positive examples of young, African American charter school founders to emulate. In 2017, Dominique Lee of BRICK Avon Academy in Newark, New Jersey won a Promise Neighborhood grant from the U.S. Education Department. Dominque aims to use the grant to educate 3,000 students in Newark over the next few years, making BRICK the state’s third-largest CMO and the only one led by a person of color.

Hense recommends that other African Americans interested in starting charter schools apply for funding from the New Schools Venture Fund or for charter school design grants from Friends of Choice in Urban Education (FOCUS), if they are in D.C.

At 75, Hense is not done. The Friendship Education Fund continues to identify opportunities to replicate their model around the country. Friendship’s goal is to bring what Hense and his team learned in Washington to the countless districts struggling to grow African American student achievement. As DCPS welcomes a new chancellor with experience championing school choice, there may be new opportunities in D.C. as well.

WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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