The scholars hung on every word spoken by the tour guide.
Moments after arriving in Washington, D.C., in May, the Harmon STEM School scholars — founder and principal Ayesha Hackman refuses to call them students — took a tour of the Capitol. As they stood in the rotunda, the guide quizzed the grade-schoolers. They responded with remarkable intelligence.
"They were knocking it out of the park," Hackman said. "It was really incredible."
Not just one child shouted out answers. The whole contingent responded and asked questions that reflected a depth of knowledge.
The parents on the trip as chaperones beamed with pride, amazed at the display of information by their kids — children once deemed difficult to teach.
For Hackman, the moment validated her decision to step away from a school administration job three years ago.
"I almost got teary-eyed when I realized they get it," Hackman said. "You have that, 'a-ha moment' that what you're doing is actually making a difference."
Harmon has spent 15 years as an educator in New Orleans, Tampa and her native Massachusetts. She could have easily wrapped herself in the comfort and security of her previous job, but she chose instead to make a leap of faith.
The mission went beyond instilling educational philosophies. She truly wanted to make a difference and provide another avenue of success — especially for children of color.
The beginning proved challenging at an Ybor City location in much need of fixing up. She had no donors, no sponsors, no contributors and few students. But she persevered.
From there, she found another site on Busch Boulevard. In between, she endured sleepless nights, wondering if the courage to step out on her own might betray her.
But now the school has found a home in the Temple Terrace Community Church that's nestled between the city's historic golf course and its country club.
"It's serene. The grass is lush, it's beautiful," Hackman said. "It fits who we are."
By design, the Harmon school is small. Hackman said she won't allow an enrollment of more than 50 students so teachers and staff can get to the heart of each scholar's academic needs.
Previous schools directed some of her scholars into exceptional student services (ESE) programs, but the smaller classes allow the school to meet the challenge.
The students are expected to score at least 80 percent on exams 100 percent of the time. It's a demand some find daunting, but the accountability approach breeds greater success.
"When scholars reach the 80 percent mark for the first time, they come see me and we have a celebration," Hackman said. "It's awesome."
The school's STEM aspect revolves around providing each child with skills that eventually can translate to college or the workplace. Too often, Hackman said, students focus only on the dream of athletics.
Learning to code, however, will help some students go from high school straight into the workplace. Others will be better prepared for college and a career.
As the school's success grows, Hackman said she hopes for more support from the community, including STEM resources. Meanwhile, she continues to marvel at how it's all working out.
Ask her about the joy one of the kids displayed after seeing a statue of Rosa Parks in the Capitol and she can't hold back her smile.
That's all I'm saying.