Donald Hense, founder and chairman of Friendship Academy, in 2010. (Gerald Martineau/For The Washington Post)

Donald Hense, founder and chief executive of Friendship Public Charter schools, plans to retire this summer after nearly two decades building one of the largest charter networks in the District.

The longtime educator said he plans to step down at the end of June, days before his 74th birthday, but he will stay on as chairman of the board of directors. He plans to remain a regular presence in the schools as a reading partner for young students. Pat Brantley, the network’s chief operating officer, will become the chief executive.

Friendship was among the first group of schools chartered by a stand-alone D.C. Public Charter School Board in 1998. It was affiliated with Friendship House Association, a community nonprofit for low-income families where Hense was the executive director.

“It was really exciting to be doing something really, really new,” Hense said in an interview. At the time, he said, he thought the city would have a few charter schools as alternatives to the traditional system — never imagining that charters would today make up 44 percent of enrolled public school students.

He always envisioned that Friendship would be a network of schools, he said, and that students would be able to attend from elementary through high school. Friendship opened with two campuses in 1998, added a third in 1999, and a high school in 2000. Today, Friendship operates 11 campuses and has more than 4,000 students, including an online academy. The network also works with traditional public school systems in Baltimore and Baton Rouge to manage schools in those districts. In 2009, the charter network also worked with D.C. Public Schools to boost reform efforts at Anacostia High.

Friendship added the online academy, and an elementary school in Northwest this school year, when it took over operations from the Dorothy I. Height Community Academy Public Charter School, which lost its charter last year over fiscal mismanagement.

Three of the Friendship schools are classified by the D.C. Public Charter School Board as “Tier One,” or high-performing, and its two high schools have posted graduation rates well above the city average.

Friendship high schools have career academies that create schools within schools for students, and they offer college-level classes and opportunities to cross-register at the University of the District of Columbia, so many students graduate with college credit.

“He created a college-going culture within an urban institution,” said Ramona Edelin, executive director of the D.C. Association of Chartered Public Schools. “He did everything he needed to do to create a viable alternative to the dropout factories.”

She also said that Hense has been the “stalwart” among school leaders speaking on behalf of his school and other charter schools as the movement has grown and has been an influential advocate for autonomy for charter schools.

Three-quarters of students enrolled in Friendship schools are from Wards 7 and 8, the city’s poorest neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River. Nearly all the students enrolled are African American.

Hense said his goal has been to help more students go to college and change their perspectives on life — to address this question: “How do we get kids to see something different than what their environment currently says they can achieve?” he said.