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“I sent my transcripts by airmail to Morehouse College. I called late afternoon the next day. The registrar answered, and I said, ‘I want to come to Morehouse. I just saw Martin Luther King.’ ”

Mr. Hense smiles as he recalls how “ridiculously naive” that might sound today, but he says there were no coincidences.

Morehouse reinforced Mr. Hense’s faith, the importance of brotherhood and the value of civil rights and community involvement. The brotherhood included Morehouse Trustee Charles E. Merrill Jr., son of the Merrill Lynch founder, and schoolmate Calvin O. Butts III, pastor of New York’s influential Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Mr. Hense, who served as an usher at Mr. King’s funeral in 1968, paid homage on the 40th anniversary of his assassination. At the ceremony held at Friendship Southeast Academy, Mr. Butts said Mr. Hense is carrying out remarkable work. He also said that at Morehouse, they learned to appreciate, not fear, thresholds of opportunity.

Community service

If the heady 1960s racked America’s conscience, the 1970s rocked black America, says Mr. Hense, who was lured to Washington with a job offer at Howard University, where President James E. Cheek wanted someone to start a government-relations department to bolster the school as a research institution. Mr. Hense says he “couldn’t resist the opportunity” to come to the capital, where the best of black America showcased itself and the Nixon administration had embraced affirmative action.

Mr. Hense, who had worked at Boston College and Dartmouth, answered the community-service call by working for the National Urban League, the liberal lioness Marian Wright Edelman’s Children Defense Fund, and Friendship House, the social service organization that, like Mr. Hense, was many things to many people.

By the time the Reagan administration had left Washington and the Clinton administration was in its second term, the city had lost its glamour and was on the verge of losing a generation of young people to follow in the footsteps of the Kings, Mayses and Johnsons, Mr. Hense says.

“In 1973, Washington was a hopeful place, a city full of upwardly mobile people,” he said. “But it became ravaged by drugs, a declining education system [and] a vast underculture.”

In the late 1980s, school reform became a mantra for change. A decade later, new and evolving partnerships would begin changing the course of public schooling with charter schools.

Chartering a new course

Mr. Hense stands among those at the forefront of the new course. Guided by the values, hard work and faithfulness of his parents’ generation, he and other forward-thinkers became charter-school pioneers. Friendship schools - the namesake of Friendship House - were born in 1997, the year after Congress passed legislation establishing charter schools. The schools are in Washington and Baltimore.

Friendship parents, Mr. Hense says, are as much a part of the students’ schooling as the teachers. They make policy decisions regarding discipline, curriculum, fundraising and other issues. They are fixtures in Friendship schools, just as Mr. Hense’s father was when he was a youngster.

Policymakers and decision-makers often forget that children need help every step of the way, he says. “You can’t just point the way,” Mr. Hense said. “You have to lead, and if you see barriers, you don’t retreat. You find different avenues.”

Friendship schools partner with successful organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to open various avenues for teachers, administrators and students. And sometimes, Mr. Hense says, you have to pave a new path.

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