Ben Williams had 30 minutes to convince a group of eighth-grade boys that they should go to a high school without any girls.
The 6-foot, 36-year-old towered over the eight black teenagers seated in the middle school library. He asked what they thought when they saw him.
The students scanned Williams’s blue fitted suit, his leather loafers and coordinating caramel-colored belt. They hesitated just a few seconds before they started raising their hands.
“A leader,” one said.
“Respectable,” said another.
“Oh, you’re one of those CEO kinds,” said a third.
That all could have been true, but his pitch required the teenagers to understand that his story started just like some of their childhoods.
“My father never met me. My mom was a prostitute,” Williams said. “My mother was a heroin fiend. I basically became the head of my household at the age of 3.”
D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson tapped Williams to be the principal of the city’s first all-male public high school, and he wants prospective students to know that whether they come from a foster home or care for their younger siblings, a prosperous career is still a possibility.
The facility, slated to open next school year with 150 ninth-graders, will be housed in a renovated vacant school building in Ward 7’s Deanwood neighborhood. Admittance will be by lottery, and Williams said academics and past school records will not be a factor.
“We are going to create a program that is specialized for young men of color,” Williams said. “Our goal is to help you become a man.”
The new college-preparatory school is part of a $20 million citywide “Empowering Males of Color” initiative, aimed at increasing opportunities for young minority men — a group that is performing well below their white and female peers in the city: 48 percent of black male students and 57 percent of Hispanic male students graduate in four years, compared with 66 percent of their classmates.
The high school — which has not yet been given a name — is modeled after a group of high-performing all-boys charter schools in Chicago called Urban Prep Academies that tout that 100 percent of its graduates go on to college.
“Principal Williams embodies what we want our young men to do in life: Overcome barriers to have strong, successful careers,” Henderson said. Although it is designed to help minorities, city officials say the school will be open to all boys, including white males.
Williams said that he and his younger brother lived much of their early childhoods in foster care in Nevada. When he was 11, a man adopted the siblings and they relocated to the District. Williams graduated from what is now called Eliot-Hine Middle School in Northeast and moved to Newport News, Va., for high school.
Williams said he earned three degrees from the University of Virginia, including a master’s and a doctorate in which his dissertation focused on the underrepresentation of African American students in Advanced Placement courses.
Most recently, he served as an associate principal at the School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens Education Campus. Next fall will be his first time leading a school.
The city’s first single-sex public school is already being scrutinized. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) has questioned whether it was legal for the city to allocate money for an all-male school without also creating an all-female school. The city’s attorney general, Karl Racine, said the school was not in violation of any anti-discrimination laws.
“I believe the city recognizes there are many struggles for all students,” Williams said. But he noted that like President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) is pushing “to make sure we are improving the graduation rates of African American and Latino men in the city.”
The school was originally billed as Urban Prep’s first school outside Chicago. Henderson said Tim King — the founder of Urban Prep who attended Georgetown University with Henderson — would be enlisted to help start the school.
But a contract between Urban Prep and the D.C. Public Schools was never finalized, and the two parties are distancing themselves from each other. Williams said he would not be looking to Urban Prep as an example as he creates the new school, although the school system says it is still looking to partner with the Chicago organization.
“We are continuing to work together to establish an agreement between DCPS and Urban Prep,” DCPS spokeswoman Michelle Lerner said in a statement.
Officials from Urban Prep did not respond to requests for comment.
The deadline to enter the lottery system is Feb. 1, giving Williams the next month to recruit 450 students — the figure he expects is needed to eventually yield 150 enrollees.
Jaiden Fischer, an eighth-grader at Walker-Jones Education Campus who listened to Williams at his middle school library, said he’s a bit nervous about going to an all-boys school. But he plans to put his name in the lottery because he wants to go to Morehouse College after graduating high school.
“So this will be good practice,” he said.
The city is still determining schools’ budgets for next year, so plans for the all-male school and its offerings are tentative. But Williams said the ratio of students per teacher will be lower than the typical comprehensive high school in the District, and it will offer a nearly full roster of sports and extracurricular activities such as band.
The students will wear ties and blazers every day; Williams constantly refers to the student body as a “fraternity” and “brotherhood.”
Discussing current events and what it means to be a young man of color in 2016 will be a more concerted part of the school day — conversations that would undoubtedly change if there were white students or women in the room.
“It’s not just going to be an academic environment,” Williams said. “We are going to be addressing some of the social and emotional issues that come with being a young man in this society right now.”
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