Donald L. Hense

As technology increasingly changes our world, traditional ideas of how to prepare students to successfully graduate college and access a lifetime of rewarding careers also change. Part of what it takes to be successful in the 21st century – which some of today’s students will see through to its end – is attending schools that impart the education and skills necessary to be a lifelong learner.

In no field is lifelong learning more important than in the STEM disciplines – science, technology, engineering, and math – as the application and development of these fields become ever more complex. The computer engineers, environmental scientists, and other STEM-professionals of tomorrow need to acquire that vital skill as early as possible, which means at school today.

At Friendship Public Charter School, we have long provided summer internships for high school alumni attending college. This allows students and the school to stay connected – we can offer help and guidance, and they can learn the ways of the world of work. Providing a stipend for this is especially important for urban youth who may otherwise have difficulty securing summer employment.

Now we have extended our K-12 summer enrichment program. According to a RAND report, economically disadvantaged students lose as much as two months of reading skills over a summer without school-based enrichment activities, whereas their more advantaged peers, with access to educational vacations and abundant reading material, make slight gains over the summer. Worse, these deficits accumulate, with each wasted summer adding to the problem. And this is just one example of the inequality that disadvantaged students face relative to their more-advantaged peers.

So we have also extended our summer school and enrichment program to full days for all students. Our Summer Learning Academy, a hybrid of instruction and enrichment, starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m. daily for five-weeks. We want to use the summer to push the envelope on STEM – igniting students’ interest, providing mentoring, and introducing them to adult STEM professionals. To this end, we are devoting the majority of our summer enrichment offerings for students to STEM-related activities.

Our enrichment program now runs through August 8th – right up to the start of the next school year – and involves public and private partnerships, as well as local communities and parents, and incentives for students. Students will witness live demonstrations from professional experts and retired scientists. Our math and science teachers are being provided with curriculum packages to prepare students for the program in advance of the summer.

Investing in these increasingly important areas pays dividends. One student from Friendship Collegiate Academy, who took AP and early college classes in computer science there, now teaches AP computer science at Collegiate. Our belief in academically rigorous AP classes and college preparation, and our investment in SMART labs – which allow students to use technology to learn – paid off.

Our Friendship Collegiate Academy is the only D.C. public school to host a FIRST regional robotics tournament next school year. Our robotics team has competed in regional and national contests. Last year, Collegiate’s robotics team won first place in the National Society of Black Engineers Regional II Competition in Norfolk, VA. The team’s victory came in the category of Engineering Design for high school students.

In addition to well-established school clubs such as the prize-winning robotics team, extra-curricular school clubs also are supporting STEM-related subjects in the areas of astronomy and space exploration, earth sciences, energy, engineering, health and medicine, math and computer science, national security, natural sciences, social sciences, and sustainability.

To expand the STEM opportunities for District students, in August we will add a twelfth grade to our middle and high school in the District’s Ward 8. In June 2015, the first class will graduate from the new campus of Friendship Technology Preparatory Academy. To support our focus on STEM, Tech Prep will include a high-tech SMART lab, enabling students to complete projects using the latest technology.

The new state-of-the-art building, next door to the Department of Homeland Security’s new headquarters, also will include a robotics lab, two chemistry labs, two biology labs, and a greenhouse. The school will introduce students to 21st century skills in environmental sciences, engineering, and technology, including computer-aided design, 3-D printing, and gaming.

Starting today and investing throughout each year will prepare our students for the work of tomorrow.

Donald L. Hense is founder and chairman of Friendship Public Charter School.