CITIZEN JOURNALISM: ‘Builder’ forges schools

Donald L. Hense, chairman of Friendship Public Charter Schools, has been many things to many people, and many of the recipients don’t know his name. To Mr. Hense, who calls himself a “serial entrepreneur” and a “builder,” that’s OK because he has dedicated his life to helping others help themselves.

Reared to serve God, community and humanity, Mr. Hense has been establishing charter schools that give youths a fighting chance at productive and successful lives. This year, he opened a school that steers youth toward the high-tech industry and began working with one of the nation’s most recognized reformers, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee, to begin transforming Anacostia High School, which has been plagued with violence and low academic achievement. Both Anacostia and the new charter school are in Southeast, the city’s poorest quadrant.

A pioneering educator, Mr. Hense says a Baptist convention and the words of three influential Americans changed the course of what he thought was a life bound to Missouri.

The middle child of five, he was born in St. Louis, whose gateway led him to the South before answering the call to come eastward and work at Howard University.

Mr. Hense says that his mission remains absolute and that he is resolute, whether shaking hands with presidents, praising children or standing shoulder-to-shoulder with philanthropists as the head of Friendship Public Charter Schools, the largest community of charters in the Washington-Baltimore region.

“I believe this is what will save black people,” Mr. Hense said.

Life imitates life

Mr. Hense says faith lights the way and perseverance keeps him going. Every step of the way, he draws from his stable childhood, historical turn of events and profound relationships.

He grew up in St. Louis as it relished World War II manufacturing industries, including McDonnell Aircraft Corp. Young Donald attended his neighborhood school, across the street from his home, where students, teachers and staff were close-knit. His mother, Lillie, was a homemaker, his father, Fred, worked at an engineering firm, and the Hense children knew what their father did on Mondays, his day off.

“Back in those days, everybody was working-class,” he said. “We were just coming out of World War II. Schools were segregated, but I don’t remember any problems.

“My father had four double-breasted blue suits, one with pinstripes, another solid and so on. He always wore one of those blue suits to school. My mother was a housewife. There wasn’t a lot we could get away with. I had good, caring teachers, fantastic teachers.”

In school and church, Donald relished the opportunity to express himself in recitals and to value partnerships by joining a speaking and performance group in first grade. “I stayed until I was 16 or 17 years old,” he said. “Relationships and partnerships are keys to what I do and who I am.”

Becoming a Morehouse man

“There were three constants in my life,” said Mr. Hense. “Baseball, church and school.” And there were three religious and education leaders who inspired him to leave St. Louis - Benjamin E. Mays, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and Martin Luther King.

It was the summer of 1965 and Mr. Hense thought he was destined for the University of Missouri before he heard the three men speak at a Baptist confab in St. Louis. One by one, the three alumni of Morehouse College in Atlanta opened his mind, his eyes and his ears. The first night he heard Mr. Johnson, a minister and the first black president of Howard University, and on the second night, he was enraptured by Mr. Mays, president of Morehouse. Before Mr. Mays’ protege, Mr. King, had closed his speech, “every fiber of my whole being” had said to become a Morehouse man.

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About the Author
Deborah Simmons

Deborah Simmons

Award-winning opinion writer Deborah Simmons is a senior correspondent who reports on City Hall and writes about education, culture, sports and family-related topics. Mrs. Simmons has worked at several newspapers, and since joining The Washington Times in 1985, has served as editorial-page editor and features editor and on the metro desk. She has taught copy editing at the University of ...

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