By Curtis Valentine
The African-American community’s fight for quality education requires constant dedication and reflection on successful strategies to educate our children. Donald Hense and the Friendship Charter Network is an example of success worthy of recognition.
Hense is the 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 the 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 achievement 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 school can earn.
As 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 non-profit 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 has12 campuses for students in grades Pre-K3 to 12 in D.C., an online school, and schools in Baton Rouge, La., Baltimore, Md., and Little Rock and Pine Bluff, Arkansas.
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 fromthe New Schools Venture Fund or for charter school design grants from Friends of Choice in Urban Schools (FOCUS), if they are in D.C.
At 75, Hense says he 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.
This article is a part of The ‘Reinventing America’s Schools’ series. This series highlights Change Makers from our community who are walking reflections of what’s possible when we place Accountability and Autonomy at the forefront.
By Dr. Elizabeth Primas, NNPA ESSA Awareness Campaign Program Manager
How is Florida addressing the needs of its lowest-performing schools under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA)? Last year, the Collaborative for Student Success an independent non-profit education advocacy organization, sought to find out. They did so by convening a group of education experts from around the country to take an in-depth look at the way 17 states were supporting and encouraging local school improvement efforts.
The experts, both from the federal and district level, provided education officials and state lawmakers with independent information on how each state could improve their plans and implementation. However, what they discovered in Florida’s ESSA plan was not encouraging.
In September 2018, Florida received final approval from the U.S. Department of Education (DOE) for its ESSA State Plan. Florida was the last state in the nation to receive such approval, as state and federal education officials squabbled for months over the state’s proposed plan.
The Florida plan was originally submitted to the DOEin September 2017, but officials failed to include the waiver requests for the specific portions of the law to which it objected.
Federal officials sent the plan back to Florida Department of Education, saying they couldn’t pick and choose which aspects of the law to follow, and that they needed to submit waivers for the areas where they would like to be granted exceptions.
Florida submitted a revised ESSA plan to the DOE in April 2018 in an effort to comply with their requests and included a separate federal school rating system—one that factors in English-language learner proficiency and subgroup performance—which would work alongside the state’s existing A-F grading methodology to target struggling schools.
The primary areas of difference between Florida’s education officials and those within the DOE had to do with the Florida’s proposed approach to provisions regarding English-language learners and demographic-based subgroups — and federal officials weren’t the only ones saying that Florida’s plan left a lot to be desired. Civil rights groups repeatedly raised the alarmas well, asking Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to rejectFlorida’s ESSA plan.
In a November 2017 letter to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, more than a dozen civil rights groups said they had “significant concerns” regarding the plan, which they believed failed “to serve the interests of marginalized students in the state” and “to comply with the requirements of the law.”
According to Dr. Rosa Castro Feinberg, who serves on the committee for LULAC Florida, an advocacy group serving all Hispanic nationality groups, Florida’s “current plan includes features that contradict common sense, expert opinion, popular will, and the intent of the ESSA. Contrary to the purposes of the ESSA, the Florida plan denies attention to struggling subgroups of students. Without attention, there can be no correction.”
A year later, with Florida now implementing a revised state accountability plan, the peer reviewers convened by the Collaborative had similar (and additional) concerns.
While noting that “empowering local leaders is a core component of successful school turnaround,” the peer reviewers worried that “too much autonomy, without sufficient state supports, may not help the students and schools in most need.”
This, the peer reviewers believe, reflects a “lack of commitment to closing achievement gaps by not addressing subgroup performance or English learner proficiency in the state’s accountability system,” meaning “districts and schools are less likely to focus on these populations as they plan and implement school improvement strategies.” The same concern and fear raised by civil rights groups a year earlier.
The peer reviewers did applaud Florida for its “overall clear, student-focused vision around high standards, college and career readiness, and rigorous accountability and improvement,” and “clearly defined and easy-to-understand A-F grading system, which places a strong emphasis on academic growth and accelerated coursework.”
However, the peer reviewers recommended that the state rework its accountability system to incorporate student subgroups and English-language learner proficiency. They also noted that Florida’s use of dual accountability systems “raises issues with school improvement implementation as it can cause confusion about which schools are being identified and how to prioritize efforts.”
Read the full report here.
Elizabeth Primas is an educator who spent more than 40 years working to improve education for children. She is the program manager for the NNPA’s Every Student Succeeds Act Public Awareness Campaign. Follow her on Twitter @elizabethprimas.