Future students of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School participate in a camp/orientation in Sandy Spring, Md., on Tuesday. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

“Men don’t wear clip-on ties.”

That sartorial directive from algebra and geometry teacher Shaka Green was just one of the many lessons being absorbed by the initial class of 100 or so students at Ron Brown College Preparatory, the District’s new boys-only high school.

The students are required to wear jackets and ties to school. So on Tuesday, Green was guiding them through a session on dressing appropriately, maintaining personal hygiene, polishing shoes, choosing the right coat hangers and presenting themselves as men of learning.

“When you say you’re going to work, you need to look like you’re going to work,” Green told the room of teenagers as they grappled with the knotty business of tying a tie.

Most of the District’s public schools won’t officially begin until Aug. 22, but the first class of students at Ron Brown is getting a jump start this week and next as they and the faculty prepare to open the only single-gender public high school in the city.

The creation of Ron Brown is a result of outgoing Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s decision early last year to invest $20 million in a city initiative for black and Hispanic males, who make up 43 percent of the students enrolled in D.C. Public Schools and whose academic achievements have fallen short of other groups.

Although the school aims to increase minority student achievement, it has faced criticism. D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) and the American Civil Liberties Union of the Nation’s Capital raised questions about the new school and whether it is legal to have a program just for boys if a similar school is not offered for girls.

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D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said last year that the program does not violate the Constitution and that he would defend the initiative if it’s challenged in court.

Ben Williams is the first principal of D.C.’s all-boys high school. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

Proponents say the school is a bold and necessary response to an underserved population that the prevailing model of education has failed. Just don’t call it an experiment to those involved, especially Ben Williams, the school’s 36-year-old principal.

“I would never refer to it that way,” Williams said. “It is us as a district recognizing a need and being proactive about creating a resource to address that need.”

The school retreat at the sprawling and verdant Sandy Spring Friends School is a 30-minute drive and a galaxy away from the boys’ new high school, which is in a remodeled building near the Deanwood Metro station in Northeast Washington.

After introductions, faculty members set about explaining to their young charges the academic and cultural goals they expect them to meet. There were team-building exercises and sharing circles and games. On Wednesday, the students will set up tents and camp out for a night. All of it is intended to create an atmosphere of trust, exploration and mutual respect, Williams said.

“We have a good group of young men, and we’re beginning the work of getting them to work together and uplift each other,” Williams said as he watched his new students playing on a field Tuesday. “We have high expectations of them and they need to realize that we expect them to meet those expectations, no matter what they’ve experienced in the past.”

The members of Ron Brown’s first class displayed a range of enthusiasm for the school Tuesday, with many saying they wished that the school was co-ed and wondering what the year ahead has in store for them. But the most common reaction was optimism.

Elijah Ashley-Mangum said he’s ready for everything the school will ask of him. Unlike many of the students, who say their parents selected the school for them, Elijah said he asked his mother to send him to Ron Brown.

“Dr. Williams is like a father I never had,” he said. “He’s strict, but that pays off. I’m like every other normal kid. I don’t like to be yelled at or when grown-ups are strict with me. But life is going to be hard and they’re being hard on us so that we’re ready. So that we don’t end up on the street like other people.”

And Elijah said that the idea of an all-boys high school also was a draw.

“I’ve already made a lot of friends,” he said. “This school says brotherhood to me, and we need brotherhood.”

Gabriel Benn said that having girls in class would be too distracting, and he likes what he has seen in his classmates and instructors.

“This school is about becoming a strong black man,” he said. “It teaches you about leadership and about how to carry yourself.”

Josiah Lynch said he chose the school because his mother saw how “proper and strict” the principal was. After two days of the summer program, he is optimistic about the school, but he’s not ready to issue a firm verdict.

“You can’t judge a book by its cover or a school by its retreat,” said the 14-year-old, displaying the wisdom of a young scholar.


Dwaine Cosey, an empowerment specialist, embraces Dashawn Sanders during a camp/orientation for future students of Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. (Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)