The Tenney Park Pavilion on Madison’s East Side on May 25 was an emotional place filled with laughter and tears as the community came together to hear stories from and to celebrate the achievements of graduating Mann Scholars at the annual Mann Scholars Celebration.

“We are here today to usher in a new class of bright young minds and to celebrate the passage of the graduating seniors into the next chapter of their lives,” said Joseph Conduah, the Mann Scholars board of directors co-chair. “I remember the selection process for these seniors. It was a very agonizing and very difficult selection process because we wanted to take everyone… but these seniors really stood out among all of the rest of the nominees.”

The Mann Scholars Program was created to provide mentoring and educational tools to students from the Madison Metropolitan School District who show potential for academic achievement but face significant challenges to reaching their full potential. Mann Scholars are picked every year based on their academic promise, their motivation, their financial need, and the willingness of their families to encourage participation in enrichment activities. They are primarily, but not exclusively, students of color. 

“These scholars … they went through a big journey. They started off with COVID and they had to go into high school, a place of unknowns, and they had to do that going through a chapter in our history that was unknown,” Conduah said. “Through the perseverance and the support of the coordinators, their parents, the educators, mentors and their own resolve, we are here today.”

Conduah said the graduates have shown a lot of effort and discipline to make progress throughout their four years in high school. 

“When we make that progress consistently, that equals success. And as we all know, success is the ticket to the next challenge,” Conduah said. “So I wanted to take a moment to really thank these youngsters and let’s celebrate each of these scholars accepting their ticket to the next big challenge.”

The Mann Educational Opportunity Fund was started more than 30 years ago by a small circle of family friends, along with Mann children — to honor their parents, Bernard and Kathlyn Mann, who were long-time Madison African American parents and strong advocates for high-quality and equitable educational opportunities for all students enrolled in MMSD.

Camille Zanoni, the director of donor and giving partner engagement at the Madison Community Foundation and Langston Evans, the director of College and Career Readiness for the Madison Metropolitan School District, were two of the speakers at the event who represented partner organizations and gave encouragement to the students of the Mann Scholars program.

“There is a proverb that says ‘a person is known by the company they keep’ and MMSD  is proud to keep company with the Mann Educational Opportunity Fund. It is proud to keep company with the Madison Community Foundation,” Evans told the crowd. “We are proud to be a part of this community because we are proud of the legacy of Bernard and Kathy Mann and the inspiration that they have put into the Madison community. We are proud of the work that the Mann Educational Opportunity Fund has done to give hope. They have provided assistance before it was even asked for … before people even knew they needed it, they showed the way.

“As a school district, we are only as strong as our connections and the company that we keep and we are absolutely proud of working with the Mann Education Opportunity Fund, seeing our scholars continuing to advance, to surprise us, to begin new lives in ways that we could never have imagined,” Evans added. “So thank you to all that have come tonight. Thank you to community members who have supported this, who believe in this, and who know our scholars can and will be the future of our society.”

Becky Mann, the youngest of the Mann siblings who has been involved in the Mann Scholars program for many years, gave Mann Family Reflections at the event.

“Mann Scholars, enjoy the ride and bring someone with you. Offering a hand to another is not difficult, and it will bring you more joy than you know,” Mann said. “I love the saying that says, ‘Helping others is selfish.’ It sounds weird. But when you help others, it makes you feel good. 

“Don’t be afraid of anything. Remember failure, build strength and then make time and space for yourself … honor yourself and honor each other … which, by the way, is my paternal grandfather’s name, Honor Mann,” she continued. “So today, we honor each and every one of you for where you are on your journey and acknowledge all the greatness that you will be in the future because you are a Mann.”

Mann Scholar Alum Remarks were given by Dr. Alisa King-Klemperer, the first ever Mann Scholar to get her doctorate degree. She is now the communications manager at the Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center (WIPAC), a scientific center for astroparticle research located at the University of Wisconsin—Madison.  

“One thing I want to stress to you is to not forget where you’ve come from, and that giving back is one of the most rewarding things that you could do,” she told the scholars. “Someday you will be the one up here inspiring the future generation. So keep that in mind. If you ever lose sight or get off track, think about why you’re doing and what your passion is.

“I want to wish you all the very best. I’m looking forward to seeing what you are into in the future. I know you’ll be doing great things.”

Mann Scholars board of directors co-chair Marilyn Ruffin introduced the new Mann Scholars who were just recently chosen to be a part of the program after going through an interview process. Those students include London Williams of Hamilton Middle School, who will be attending Madison West; E’Yonna Jones of Whitehorse Middle School, who will be attending Madison La Follette; Carlos Rodriguez of Badger Rock Middle School who will also be attending Madison La Follette; and Asiya Abdi of Gillespie Middle School who will be attending Madison Memorial.

The 2024 annual Mann Scholars Celebration at Tenney Park Pavilion on Madison’s East Side on May 25
(Photo by David Dahmer)

Maia Pearson, the Mann Scholars program coordinator, presented awards to the graduating Mann Scholars — Rodney Gavins Jr. of Madison West, Azahria Washington of Madison Memorial High School, Danielle Watson of Madison West High and Gregory Smith Jr. of Madison East High School.

Pearson called each graduating scholar and their parents to the front to give the parent a graduation sash to put on the scholar along with a Mann Scholar pin. The parents received a beautiful bouquet of flowers.

“These sashes represent the hard work and dedication that each scholar has put in. These sashes also represent the hopes and dreams that each scholar will achieve,” Pearson says. “The pins represent the fact that you are a Mann Scholar and will be forever a part of the Mann Scholar Family, even after graduation. You wear this pin and sash with pride, as you embody the vision of Bernard and Kathy Mann, as well as the widest dreams of our ancestors.”