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.
"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.
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.
He tells the story of a visit to the Virginia suburbs, where the idea for a new tech-centered school presented itself. Mr. Hense was in Reston to attend a meeting and drove around parking lots in the technology area looking for D.C. license plates, searching for evidence that D.C. men and women were employed. To his disappointment, D.C. tags were few and far between.
Mr. Hense says Friendship Tech Prep Academy, which opened its doors this school year, is another opportunity to help blacks help themselves.
There are various types of taskmasters, he says, explaining that some merely tear down and some tear down and rebuild.
"I'm a builder," said Mr. Hense. "That's what I do. That's what I know."