Once a year during Black History Month, young Max Lyttle would become the center of attention at his Baltimore Catholic elementary school.
“It wasn’t respect,” said Royston Maxwell Lyttle, now a 41-year-old principal at Eagle Academy Public Charter School in Southeast Washington. “It was including me. The class talked about slavery, and it was always awkward for the teacher and awkward for me.”
Lyttle begged his parents to send him to public school to be around more black people. He felt at a loss in the nearly all-white school. How did black people succeed? What did successful black men look like? How did they behave?
He met his first black teacher as a freshman at Virginia State University, an all-black college in Petersburg, Va. It was Leon Bey.
“He was in a suit. He spoke elegantly, with confidence,” Lyttle said. “Listening to him was the first time I could picture myself in his shoes. I wanted to be like Dr. Bey.”
Today Lyttle, a 6-foot-5 former track star, is trying to inspire the 760 children, from preschool through third grade, at Eagle Academy’s Congress Heights campus. His uniform is pure Wall Street: loafers, dress pants and crisp-collar shirt topped off with his signature bow tie.
“It’s being there,” said Lyttle, as he strolled through the school, which is 98 percent African American, on a sunny spring morning. “Being visible, knowing their names, learning handshakes, talking about better choices.”
His job is as much visual as it is verbal. “I am always in shirt and tie, trying to get them to ‘visualize yourself.’ When you see someone in shirt and bow tie, you see this person in a wonderful job.”
Lyttle takes students to World Wrestling Entertainment matches, makes connections and builds trust, trying to get them to relax and enjoy themselves. He hosts lunches in the cafeteria, a chance to mentor or just listen.
“Students cannot learn if they are not socially and emotionally there,” Lyttle said.
Kids are inundated, he said, with images of football players, basketball players, rappers and entertainers. But ask them if they want to be a teacher or doctor or business person, and they aren’t sure how to answer.
“Just like me, they have not had exposure to someone to make them want to be a teacher,” Lyttle said. “We want them to see there is more to life than sports and music.”
Eagle Academy grapples with intractable problems in American society and illuminates the effects of the uneven distribution of wealth. Its student body — ages 3 to 9 — is from Congress Heights, one of the city’s poorest areas. Ninety-two students, or 14 percent of Eagle’s enrollment, live in homeless shelters. Sixty-four percent live in single-parent households. Twenty-two percent, or 152 children, receive special education. Some need counseling for years.
“A lot of our students, especially boys, have absentee fathers in their lives,” Lyttle said. “We try to replace it being that principal, that big brother, being that parent from 8:30 to 4 o’clock.”
Eagle, once one of the higher performers among D.C.’s 123 charter schools, had a hiccup last year. Its 2017-2018 national test scores for third-graders were the lowest in its 16 years and in the bottom half for D.C. charter schools.
“We have the resources in place so that doesn’t happen again,” said Karen Maria Alston, the school’s marketer and chief troubleshooter. “We want them to get the same shot as kids in Chevy Chase, Bethesda and McLean.”
The big drop in test scores led to the firing of 26 teachers, who were replaced with 18 new ones.
Alston and chief executive Joe Smith have Lyttle’s back. They assembled the $25 million budget, mostly taxpayer money, for the nonprofit school, and they run interference with District school officials.
The philosophy is this: Get the kids when they are young, and put them on a good path.
“Give us the first six years, and they will go on in life and do well,” said Smith, who has worked in education for more than 30 years and helped start Eagle Academy 16 years ago.
Eagle gives its students an early start in science, technology, engineering and math — the STEM curriculum. Every student has access to an iPad. Starting this spring, graduating third-graders will each be given one to keep.
“These kids are going to live in a tech world,” Smith said. “We are trying to figure out how to get them ready.”
The first and last 20 minutes of the day are reserved for Fast ForWord, a computerized language and reading program that includes memory and listening exercises. The school also has students gather in small groups to learn about decision-making and cooperation. Intensive one-on-one sessions in math and reading are available. And there is a swimming pool to teach water safety.
Lyttle understands the challenges facing the students. A Maryland state champion in the 100-meter dash, he was a heavily recruited athlete. But he said he was unable to make use of his talent to attend a “prestige” school such as the University of North Carolina because he underestimated the importance of such things as standardized tests. He looks back with regret on his lack of savvy about going to college.
“No matter how fast I was, nobody wanted me,” said Lyttle, who had decent grades in high school. “I didn’t even know you could take the SAT more than once. I tell people, ‘Don’t be like me in school.’ ”
He found inspiration when he laid eyes on Leon Bey and, later, when he heard his first speech by President Barack Obama.
The Eagle team works to recruit black men.
“It’s good for our kids not only to see women who have made it and gone to college,” Smith said. “They also need to see men who have made it and gone to college.”
I walked Eagle Academy’s bright yellow hallways one recent morning with Lyttle and Alston.
The school is crammed with messages that provide positive reinforcement. A book, “Little Leaders: Bold Women in Black History,” rested on a library shelf with a scrum of puppets that included the Cat in the Hat, some moose and some bears. A cutout of former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick was on one wall. A salute to math stars called “Fluttering about Math” was on another.
Eagle Academy sees itself as the only hope for many of these children. So it doesn’t expel. A Pride Room provides encouragement for students who misbehave. There’s a multisensory therapy room, where kids can chill by climbing a wall or jumping into a tub full of plastic balls.
I am still not sure what success will look like at Eagle Academy. Getting those test scores back up would be a triumph. There are no hard numbers to record long-term victories. Alston and Smith said a number of the 26 original kindergartners now attend college.
Success could be as simple as putting some routine in a child’s life. It mighty be providing a sense of normalcy and decent food, listening to a child and cultivating ambition.
After 13 years, Lyttle balances his aspirations with managed expectations.
“When you see a student who has major misbehaving in the beginning of the year and then you stop noticing them because they are behaving, or they don’t have a frown, walking up and down the hallways, that’s success.”