George B. Hess Jr. is smarter than a 5th grader. And he is deeply committed to improving the state of education in Baltimore City.

That’s why Hess, 81, a retired business executive, serves as board co-chair of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, a nonprofit striving to raise educational standards and opportunities among youth in city schools.

“BCP has benefited from Mr. Hess’s deep expertise in operating complex organizations,” says BCP President Laura Doherty. “This expertise, combined with his love of education and Baltimore City, has enabled BCP to grow and thrive, yet remain true to its mission of successfully educating all of the students in our schools.”

BCP is the state’s largest charter school operator, serving more than 2,600 students. On April 10, BCP will host its eighth annual “Are You Smarter than a BCP 5th Grader?” gala at the American Visionary Art Museum. The event is modeled after the popular TV game show hosted by Jeff Foxworthy.

More than 200 attendees are expected to participate in the evening of dinner, drinks and a fun-filled quiz show. The latter will feature BCP school students competing against AVAM President Rebecca A.  Hoffberger; Sheilah Kast of WYPR-FM; Julia Marciari-Alexander, executive director of the Walters Art Museum; and Alicia Wilson, senior vice president of Impact Investments and Port Covington Impact Investments.

Jmore recently caught up with Hess, former president of his family’s retail business, Hess Shoes. A philanthropist, community leader, and father of three and grandfather of six, Hess lives in Brooklandville. He encourages people to come to the “Are You Smarter” event because “everyone has a great time.”

Jmore: What first attracted you to BCP and its mission?

Hess: When I look at the staff, there’s practically no turnover. These are people who love what they’re doing. For the most part, they’ll either retire or die here.

We’re looking for people — for the board, the BCP staff — who really want to commit to kids, to making education better.

Why doesn’t the public know more about BCP and its success stories?

We [at BCP] deliberately stay under the radar. We want to figure out programs and systems to make schools better. There is a formula here that works. It includes Direct Instruction [an educational strategy providing carefully designed lessons in order for students to master skills] and Restorative Practices, a system for getting kids to talk about their problems. We want to give our model to the city, the country, to anybody who wants it.

So what kind of 5th grader were you?

At age 10, I was a truant. I was bored in school. I’d leave and take the streetcar and then a bus over to the Pikesville Shopping Center where, for ladies who were shopping, I’d carry packages to their cars. My parents found out when a friend of my mother’s told her what a nice boy I was for helping her in the parking lot.

My parents then decided that I needed to go to a different school, one that would challenge me more.

Where’d you wind up?

I was sent to Gilman School. I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t know anybody there, and it was all the way across town. But I went. It was the fall of 1947. I was the first Jewish kid to attend Gilman.

How’d it go?

At first, I had a terrible time adjusting. I was a fat little kid. I got into a fight with another student. Eventually, he became my good friend and my dentist. I just went to his funeral. During the week, I had my school friends from Gilman. On the weekends, I had my Jewish friends. They were very different worlds.

Sounds like Gilman had a profound impact on your life.

It did. I’m still very involved. I’ve been on Gilman’s Board of Trustees for 50 years, and was board chairman from 1990 to 1994. It was a very important part of my life.

After Gilman, where did you continue your education?

In those days, you only applied to about three colleges. My first choice was Dartmouth. I applied there because of its outdoor opportunities; I always loved the outdoors. I was a funny Jew that way. I also applied to Princeton and Yale, and I got accepted to them well before I heard from Dartmouth.

But I eventually heard from Dartmouth. I went there and had a great experience.

Did your own educational experiences lead you to BCP and your other philanthropic and volunteering pursuits?

It was a combination of my education and my love of the city. I do love the city, warts, pimples, and all. I felt, and I still feel, that public education is vital to making the city great.

Any advice for young people contemplating how to give back to the community?  

I don’t think it’s one-size-fits-all equation. You have to do what’s comfortable for you. But I do think that giving back is vital to being happy with your own life.

For information about BCP’s “Are You Smarter than a 5th Grader?” gala, visit baltimorecp.org.

Elizabeth Heubeck is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.