The Stevens Elementary School Chorus sang a song written just for her. Former school superintendent Vincent Reed jokingly confessed he had "been hitting on" her for 20 years. And Mayor Marion Barry insisted he had cleared his other 125 or so invitations this week so he could "pay tribute to an outstanding educator and a beautiful person."
The object of all the attention and affection was Floretta D. McKenzie, outgoing superintendent of the D.C. public schools, who was honored at the Washington Hilton last night with a black-tie dinner.
About 600 members of the business, education and journalism communities turned out not only to say farewell to McKenzie, who left the post this week, but to wave their flags for public education and to kick off the first fundraiser of the D.C. Public Schools Foundation to benefit the Washington Parent Group Fund. Last night's effort pulled in nearly $80,000.
"D.C. Public Schools Foundation was set up by a bunch of us to provide alternative sources of funding outside of the budgeted sources for the superintendent of schools," explained Thomas J. Owen, a co-chair of the dinner committee. "This dinner offers a dual opportunity: to honor Floretta McKenzie and at the same time to raise monies for projects that she is interested in."
American University President Richard Berendzen, one of the dinner's vice chairmen, said, "I'm trying to link universities and the business community with D.C. public schools ... I want to invite students to the campus, and I'd like for them to feel that it's their campus, too. We'd also like to get the message across to stay in school, don't drop out!"
Elliott Hall, vice president of Washington affairs for the Ford Motor Co., was there with his wife Shirley. "We moved here from Detroit eight months ago, and we support the public school system," Hall said. "We particularly appreciate the job Floretta McKenzie has done. She came into the job and brought peace." The Halls added that they were "really pleased" that their 9-year-old daughter Tiffany is a student at Murch Elementary School.
"I'm here to show my support for a lady I believe has done an outstanding job as superintendent the last six years," said Nate Bush, a member of the board of education representing Ward 7. At which point the lady, a bit late, arrived to an onslaught of kisses, hugs and tugs from those gathered in her behalf.
"I have mixed feelings about leaving," McKenzie said as she worked the room, pumping hands and exchanging hugs and kisses. "It's been my most difficult job, but the one I've loved more than any other I've ever held." The greatest challenge of her successor, she said, will be "improving the achievements of students and helping them to develop good self-concepts so that they can resist" the drugs and violence that have been the downfall of many of the city's young.
Those words were echoed by virtually every person who addressed the gathering, from WJLA-TV anchor Renee Poussaint, who emceed the proceedings, to the mayor, who announced to the visibly affected crowd that the District's 45th murder in a year only 41 days old had just taken place.
"I'm wrestling diligently to try to figure out how to deal with young people killing each other over boom boxes," he said. "I don't know what to do about that."
The mayor then returned to the matter at hand, praising McKenzie as "an outstanding educator and a beautiful person who has demonstrated for the past six years that she has been the best superintendent in the nation." He tempered his praises, however, with the declaration that "when she gets angry, she can cuss like a sailor." All, including McKenzie, cracked up.
In response to the mayor's remarks, McKenzie thanked him for his accessibility, saying, "I never called the mayor once when he would not talk to me."
Barry emphasized that he and his administration supported public education because "it makes a difference for our young people to see we care about them." Asked why, then, his own 7-year-old son, Christopher, attends a private school, he explained that his son began school at the age of 2, the District does not offer a program for 2-year-olds, and besides, "I believe parents ought to have an option."
McKenzie, whose two children were present, also spoke of parents' rights. "Parents know what they want for their children and should have an opportunity to make that possible ... Too many of our children believe that they don't have a future and there is nothing to lose."