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Exclusive interview with Michela English, president and CEO Fight For Children

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Many people know that I have a special admiration for Joseph E. Robert, Jr., the founder of the non-profits Fight For Children and the Washington Scholarship Fund, who passed away toward the end of 2011. He is one of my heroes for his work on behalf of children, especially those who are disadvantaged. So it was a thrilling pleasure to be able to interview Michela English, Fight For Children’s president and chief executive officer, and I am honored to publish our conversation on Mr. Robert's birthday. I started our discussion by asking her about the current state of her organization.

“Fight For Children finds itself in a fascinating position, well poised for the future,” the FFC president immediately replied. “When Joe died people started shaking their heads wondering if we would survive. We are extremely fortunate that we have come through this transition in excellent shape. We have retained many of our board members and added two fantastic ones, Raul Fernandez, our new chairman, and Gina Adams from the FedEx Corporation. We just came off the most financially successful Fight Night in the history of the event, raising approximately $3.9 million with the support of Under Armour founder and CEO Kevin Plank. In 2013 we presented our sixth annual Quality School Awards to the Columbia Heights Educational Campus and D.C. Bilingual Public Charter School. Last year, we also started the early childhood program “Joe’s Champs” in Joe Robert’s honor."

Ms. English explained that Fight For Children utilized the services of Child Trends and the Urban Institute to determine how the institution could obtain the best return for its investments in serving low income kids in the nation’s capital. That work led to a five year plan focused on improving the quality of early childhood education so that every child in DC enters kindergarten ready to learn. Fight For Children’s new focus on early childhood builds on neuroscience research that has discovered that by the time a child has reached the age of five, 90 percent of the brain has already developed. “Many children from low-income families get to kindergarten,” Ms. English explained, “and they are already years behind academically. They never catch up. Through the Joe’s Champs program and our other early childhood programs, we will invest $10 million in staff resources and investment capital over the next five years to address this need. This program is targeted specifically at the children who most need help, as Joe would have wanted."

I then inquired of Ms. English the motivation behind Mr. Robert creating the non-profit. “Joe did not have an easy childhood,” the president responded. “He was not poor, but he was in and out of numerous schools and was frequently in trouble. People aided him along the way, and so when he became successful in business he had a strong desire to help others. For him the great equalizer in society was education, and he was highly astute in that he understood the interrelationship between education and health in preparing children to become successful adults.”

I then wanted to know what it was like to work with Mr. Robert. Ms. English was eager to respond. “Although he could be a tough guy, he was at the same time exceedingly warm and unassuming. Joe was an extremely direct and pragmatic person. As you got to know him, you learned how funny he could be. He was a terrific human being who loved helping others. Whatever goal we were working on, he always focused on doing the right thing for children. Still to this day in staff meetings, we frequently ask ourselves what would Joe do in this situation? It was terribly sad to lose him.”

It became obvious through our dialog that she has a great deal of admiration for Mr. Robert. One likely reason for this is that the two worked together with enormous mutual respect. Ms. English had retired from being the president of Discovery Consumer Products and president and COO of Discovery.com. Her previous positions included senior leadership roles with the National Geographic Society, Marriott Corporation, and McKinsey and Company. Although she has been in her current job almost eight years, she remembers like it was yesterday meeting the founder of Fight For Children. “I had always worked in business and served on boards and I was now ready to do something for the benefit of the community. This friend of mine who was a recruiter called me and said that I had to meet Mr. Robert. So I researched Fight For Children online, saw the Fight Night pictures of boxing matches and dancing Redskin Cheerleaders and thought this really was not for me. My friend, though, would not give up. Eventually, she convinced me to meet Joe. The minute I met him, I liked him. Right from the start it was clear that we shared similar values. Working together he was extremely hands-off, and I in turn tried to protect his time. We had a great working relationship.”

I asked Ms. English what she is doing at Fight For Children that really excites her. She returned immediately to the Joe’s Champs initiative. “As an organization we began to realize that we have many teachers of three and four year olds that do not have specific training in early childhood education theory and curricula. The program works as a three-legged stool concentrated around training teachers, mentoring principals, and providing a supportive professional learning network. We are partnering with the Capital Teaching Residency, formed by KIPP DC and E.L Haynes Public Charter Schools and the Urban Teacher Center to provide the professional development. We are currently piloting the program in seven schools involving 10 school leaders and 50 teachers, and reaching almost 1,000 students. Fight For Children will invest $6 million in the program over the next five years. Our goal is to reach 10,000 children.”

Ms. English added that her group is actively raising money to support Joe’s Champs. Generous contributors have included the Freddie Mac Foundation, the Marriott Foundation, the United Arab Emirates, and several board members. As the number of schools involved grows, a capital campaign will be launched to fund the program roll-out.

Besides their work around early childhood education, Ms. English is proud of the Quality School Initiative that is now in its sixth year. The president of Fight For Children revealed that over $1.5 million has been invested by her organization in order to encourage schools to improve the quality of their academic offerings and to foster the sharing of best practices. Ms. English mentioned that in recent years the Quality School Award has typically been given to one charter and one traditional school. “We are completely agnostic over whether a high performing school is part of DCPS or is a charter. Our concern is that all kids receive an excellent education.”

Fight For Children, according to Ms. English, is concentrating its efforts on larger grants that can have the greatest impact on society. She stated that the annual Fight Night event has usually allowed her organization to give away $1 million dollars a year to worthwhile causes in the nation’s capital. Now, because of the record-breaking success of last year’s gala and the partnership with Under Armour, for the first time they will be able to award over $2 million to groups in both Washington, D.C., and Baltimore.

In fact, as material from the organization lays out, over the last 24 years of Fight For Children’s existence it “has raised and leveraged over $450 million for education and healthcare programs for low-income children in Washington D.C. Fight For Children’s fundraising events and other initiatives have directly raised $100 million. It has also been a catalyst in helping the District of Columbia obtain an additional $350 million in federal funding for local education programs.” The list of non-profits that have benefited from Fight For Children’s philanthropy include a who’s who of outstanding local organizations. These include AppleTree Institute for Education Innovation, The Archdiocese of Washington Tuition Assistance Program, Big Brothers/Big Sisters of the National Capital Area, Capital Partners for Education, Children’s National Medical Center, DC Scores, Georgetown University’s KIDS Mobile Medical Clinic, the Latino Student Fund, Mary’s Center, Teach for America, and Unity Health Care, to name a sample.

Ms. English is honored to work with an energetic 10-person staff and engaged board of directors that have allowed this self-described “child of the 1960s” and former child welfare worker to continue her life-long interest in making the world a better place. She and Mr. Robert met early on with Michelle Rhee to back her efforts to reinvigorate DCPS, and provided $250,000 in start-up capital for the system’s IMPACT teacher training evaluation system. Thousands of children have benefited from the organization’s support of the Federal Opportunity Scholarship Program. It was also an early driver in the creation of the local charter school movement that now enrolls 44 percent of all public school students. This three sector approach, support of traditional, charters, and private school vouchers, has served Fight For Children well, and it appears from my time with Ms. English that the organization will continue helping low income children to an even higher level in the future.

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