- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2014


Donald Hense had a vision — make that two visions. The first fortuitously led to the other.

The first occurred several years back, when Mr. Hense discovered there were no D.C. license plates in a Northern Virginia parking lot filled with science and technology experts and other professionals.

That sight led to vision No. 2: Build a high-tech school for D.C. kids, and they will come.

Well, that vision will produce the first graduates of the Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy in 2015.

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the brand-spanking-new schoolhouse was held Wednesday, and prior to that students attended classes in an adjacent school building. And what an eye-stunner the new building is. (Disclaimer: I served as emcee for the ceremony on Wednesday and toured the school.)

Every square inch of Tech Prep is state-of-the-art, focusing on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — including environmental science — as no D.C. school has done before it.

An $18 million price tag. Two biology labs. Two chemistry labs. A robotics lab. A rooftop greenhouse. Innovative teachers. Inquisitive students. Parent-infused leadership and faculty.

Even the kitchen facilities are top-notch.

While there’s no chalk dust flying about classrooms, the technology, whiteboards and projectors left more than one parent saying, “Nothing like when I was in school.”

This is what they want for their children, and their children deserve it: a high-quality teaching and learning environment.

Two generations ago, Tech Prep was unthinkable. D.C. had just gained home rule authority in 1974, and academic achievement was sliding while political one-upmanship was a sign of the times. By the 1980s crack and its senseless violence grabbed headlines while academics slid off everyone’s radar screens.

After the turn of the century, public schools had become warehouses, while charters began sprouting up everywhere and being maligned for competing. Sure, McKinley Tech was brought online, but today, as the city closes traditional schools for any drummed-up reason, charters surge ahead.

Indeed, Tech Prep is even located in an auspicious community — an up-and-coming neighborhood where mentally ill patients of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital, drug dealers, panhandlers and ne’er-do-wells used to ply the area because no one was watching.

Now its Southeast neighbors are the U.S. Coast Guard and the Department of Homeland Security, and IT industry projects are on the horizon. The potential for partnerships is high, and the location — near Metro stations, major roadways (I-295 and the Beltway) and a gateway corridor (MLK Jr. Avenue) — means transportation is a good draw as well.

As for academic competitiveness, Tech Prep has a role model, so to speak, in Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County, where Mr. Hense had that first vision that I mentioned.

TJ, as it is commonly called, just this month was named the nation’s best magnet school by Newsweek (again) and is a perennial high-ranking high school with U.S. News & World Report. TJ is a mecca for geeks and nerds, and we need to send up prayers that Tech Prep students and faculty do as well, if not better.

I got a glimpse of what’s going on in a Tech Prep robotics class, where teacher Joshua Brown, a Howard University grad with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering, and several pairs of students were bent over texts and working with their hands. A student explained their assignment as I nodded and smiled — then giggled outside the classroom, thinking “The Big Bang Theory: Next Generation.”

To be sure, parents, faculty and other supporters need to flank Mr. Hense and Tech Prep right now. Anti-school choice and anti-charter elements are on the prowl this election year. They think charters take top-drawer students and money from traditional schools, and they say charters are winning the enrollment numbers race. Their goal is to strangle public charter schools with as much red tape as possible.

What they should realize is that Mr. Hense is showing them the way with Tech Prep, and that all charter schools ask for is a level playing field for charter students.

We’ll have to wait and see if Tech Prep makes the best-of lists in the next couple of years. What’s certain right now is that Tech Prep is a game changer, raising the bar on teaching and learning.

Deborah Simmons can be reached at dsimmons@washingtontimes.com.

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