Meet Two School Boosters

District Schools Benefit from Community Supporters

186
George Blackmon marches with Maury Elementary in the Capitol Hill July 4th Parade. Photo: E. O’Gorek/CCN

George Blackmon remembers well the 100th day of school at Maury Elementary (1250 Constitution Ave. NE), on Feb. 6, 1999. In those days, he said, “the 100th Day” was a big deal; the whole community, including the DC Public Schools (DCPS) “big brass,” would come and gather outside of the school.

By that point, Blackmon was well-known in the school community as a volunteer and as a neighborhood resident. That day a student in the crowd noticed a moving van parked outside Blackmon’s house.

“Oh, no,” Blackmon recalls the student asking him. “You’re not leaving, are you?”

Blackmon was indeed moving—to Takoma in Northwest DC. But the student had no cause for concern. Because from 1976 to the present, George Blackmon has never left Maury. Principal Helena Payne-Chauvenet is the eighth Maury principal to work with him.

“Mr. Blackmon has been one of the longest-serving volunteers at Maury Elementary, and we appreciate all he has done for the school community,” she said, enumerating his many efforts: leading Walk-to-School and Bike-to-School participation, organizing the school lost-and-found and being a recess monitor and sending humorous and encouraging poems to staff and families throughout the school year.

“Maury is my go-to,” Blackmon said.

Blackmon is only one of the District’s school boosters, individuals who do not have students at the city’s schools but nonetheless pour their time, energy and even finances into keeping them strong.

Often, these folks are themselves alumni who want to ensure the pleasant memories of their school experience are kept alive for succeeding generations. Sometimes they are neighbors.

Every one of them proves the importance of the connection between schools, communities and the lives of the students they serve.

A Lot of Tradition, A Lot of Memories
In 1976, Blackmon lived on Duncan Place NE, just north of Maury, with his mom and dad and his younger brother, Gregory. George joined a pilot preschool program there the year he was four. The next year, boundaries changed and Blackmon went on to Lovejoy Elementary for kindergarten, then on to Eliot Middle School before graduating from Dunbar High.

He studied at Howard and University of the District of Columbia (UDC) before going to work at DC Public Schools (DCPS) central office, still walking by Maury frequently on his way home from work every day.

In the 1990s, he started to volunteer to supervise kids as they headed home. That rapidly telescoped into a consistent volunteer role during school activities such as cheerleading competitions (Maury were citywide champions in 1992, Blackmon said).

He was helping out to make sure kids were getting in and out of school okay, he said, when a parent noticed and suggested he apply for a teaching aide position at the school, a position he held for two years. When funding cuts eliminated his position in 1997, he volunteered to provide assistance during the day and took a role in aftercare for the next year before starting his current job with Democracy Credit Union in 1998.

In the past 25 years, Blackmon has served the school in a variety of positions. Between 1996 and 2008, Blackmon filled roles as Parent Teacher Association (PTA) treasurer, secretary and president. For 17 years, Blackmon has been part of the school’s representation on the Ward 6 Public Schools Parent Organization (W6PSPO).

He is also a repository of information about Maury’s past and present. He can rattle off all the principals since the 1980s and key events on the school’s annual events calendar. Years of succeeding PTA presidents have relied on him to outline how traditional events are organized.

“Now that it’s been 30+ years, I can pass on that knowledge to the next generation of folks,” he said. “Maybe there were things that we did that could be used. In that time, a whole lot of things have changed.”

Now, he said, although the school has grown so much, there are students that still tell Blackmon that their parents know him. They probably do. Everyone at Maury knows George Blackmon. But the reverse has become a little challenging, he said. “You got 500 plus students now, and it’s hard to know everybody like I did back then. You have to be a little more intentional in terms of reaching out.”

But he still tries. “I feel that I’m still a valuable part of the school,” he said, “and I like the community feel.”

In Plain Sight
In 1997, the Eastern High School (1700 East Capitol St. NE) band performed for a wedding. The Unification Church held a mass ceremony in which 20,000 people were married at RFK Stadium. The band was supposed to be paid $10,000.

But two years later, nobody knew what had become of that money, and the band was in financial dire straits. The alumni were asked to petition to the new principal for help. So a group of former students went to talk to school staff, who instead appealed to them for help.

John Gibson, a 1992 graduate of Eastern, was part of the group. “No-one could find out what happened to the funding,” he remembered. “There was no record of this donation.”

John Gibson gives remarks at a Motion Picture Association (MPA) event attended by Eastern Students. Courtesy: J. Gibson

But he located it, hidden in plain sight. “You know when they give a massive check and they have a big version of it that they display?” he recalls, 23 years later. “It had been hanging on the wall for the last four years outside the principal’s office. But he, like other people, walked past it every day, so they never looked at it.”

And that’s where it started, Gibson said. He has been helping the school find resources ever since.

Growing up at 12th Street and Maryland Avenue, Gibson entered Eastern from Hine Middle School (then located at 310 Seventh St. SE) in 1989, one of 1,000 tenth graders that year. It wasn’t even his preferred choice at the time; wanting a change of scenery, he’d hoped to follow his sisters to HD Woodson.

But the extracurriculars got him. He said Principal Ralph Neal really did a masterful job of focusing on every component of the school. “The choir was world renowned; obviously the marching band. Then there were all the various clubs and opportunities. There was just this energy around Eastern,” he said.

He remembers walking to the school every day and hearing the announcements, which always ended with the tagline, “Eastern is indeed proud.”

“So we had this almost swagger about attending the school,” he said.

After graduating from Eastern, Gibson he worked for Senator Barbara Boxer, then onto the Department of Agriculture under the Clinton administration, probably as the youngest aide to a secretary at the time. He led a trip on behalf of the department to South Africa, meeting Nelson Mandela at his home.

Gibson is now the Vice President, External and Multicultural Affairs for the Motion Picture Association (MPA), the pre-eminent trade association for the movie industry, where he created the diversity equity inclusion program.

So, back in 1997, when he heard the band wasn’t getting paid to entertain, he knew he was well-suited to shifting that trend. Organizations hosting conventions in the District were willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars for catering, but only a couple of hundred to the band, he said, not even enough to cover transportation.

“We’re not going to do that,” he would tell them. “The band is an artist.”

He served on the PTA executive from 1999 to 2011, a time when Eastern went through some major hurdles and transformations. Beginning with Neal’s departure in 1997, the school went through more than 11 principals in ten years. The building was serious neglected. There was talk of converting Eastern into a charter school or closing it completely.

Alumni, including Gibson, watched carefully as decisions about the future of the school were being made. In 2004, he said, over 1200 alumni descended on Eastern for a community meeting. “Tommy Wells was in shock,” Gibson said.

Wells is a former Ward 6 Councilmember who currently serves as the Director of the District’s Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE). But in 2004, he had been the Ward 6 representative to the District’s Board of Education for three years. He already had a deep relationship with Eastern, he said, and he knew it was important to support the school administration, but also to hear the parents and the alumni.

“I came to trust John Gibson for trying to respect that balance,” Wells reflected. “I felt like he gave me good advice and I respected the volunteer time he put in to make Eastern a better school for our students.”

Eastern stopped accepting students in 2009 when it was closed for renovation, restarting in 2011 with only ninth grade and a new principal, Rachel Skerrit. To honor the new beginning, Gibson wound up his last term on the PTA, but he still manages the band’s social media platforms.

Gibson said the alumni are a powerful force and a great community. He’s on emails with alumni classes from the 50s and 60s; they are vibrant and active, throwing a BBQ at Eastern in June. “Those folks just dwarf what I do,” he said. “It’s a special place for so many people.”

Like them, Gibson isn’t going anywhere. His job forces him to travel more often, so he cannot be physically present like he once was. But he still gives however he can—financial support, opportunities to connect students—particularly in his industry and in his networks.

Both Gibson and Blackmon just want to give students the kind of experiences they cherish. Gibson said he wants students to share the feeling he had—that their home city is important and powerful—and so are they.

“Revel in that,” Gibson says to District students. ” Take that, and wear it as a backpack to take on the world.”