Truesdell Education Campus has a problem.
"The books that we read here, we can relate to," 11-year-old Devon Wesley said. The book club has finally allowed Devon to encounter black characters who look like him.
The club dates back to December, when a fifth-grader complained one morning that his lackluster results on a citywide English exam didn't reflect his true reading abilities.
The principal, Mary Ann Stinson, placed a book she had lying around — "Bad Boy: A Memoir," by Walter Dean Myers — in his hands and told him to start reading.
Michael Redmond, the assistant principal, saw this unfold and called in Devon, a popular and smart student on campus who often needs an extra push. He didn't want the reading assignment to feel like a punishment, so Redmond asked Devon, his classmate who was given "Bad Boy" and a third student to read the book together.
The boys quickly became engrossed in the 2001 book about Myers's childhood in New York's Harlem.
By the end of the day, Redmond said other students spotted Devon and his friends reading the book and asked the assistant principal if he had a copy for them. The library had only a few available, so Redmond ordered a handful more.
He decided he would use this enthusiasm to help students organize an all-male book club, accepting the first 10 students who said they were interested in extra reading and discussions outside of school hours.
Redmond — a George Washington University doctoral student whose dissertation is focused on the educational advancement of minority boys — said he remembers being aware as a kid that people didn't expect boys of color to be readers. He wanted to shatter that stereotype for these boys, and for everyone they encounter in their lives.
In the District, black male students are the lowest-performing demographic on standardized tests, statistics that mirror national education trends. President Barack Obama had attempted to address these disparities through the My Brother's Keeper initiative, which aims to improve outcome for boys and young men of color.
The District has pushed to close this achievement gap through its Empowering Males of Color program, which awards grants to gender-based programs.
"What a beautiful thing, for teachers to be able to see boys who look like this be so into reading," Redmond said. "We did not imagine that kids would be this serious about reading and about doing something that we didn't ask them to do."
Redmond and the boys meet once or twice a week at 8:15 a.m. — a half-hour before the first bell rings — and use the book to launch into conversations about their own experiences with race, identity and adolescence.
"There's a line in 'Bad Boy' where he says, 'I prefer not to be seen as black,' and he didn't want his accomplishments to be viewed as 'Negro accomplishments,' " Redmond said at the beginning of book club last week. "He wrote that line not because he was ashamed of being black, but why?"
The students, wearing sweatshirts that said #BrilliantBrownBoy, shot their hands straight up. They sat at desks pushed together to form a large square, all huddled over their creased books.
"Because you can be smart, not because you're black, but because you're smart, period," 10-year-old Kemari Starks said.
Kemari, an aspiring zoologist, said he joined the book club because he "wanted to be a part of it."
He devoured the 200-page book in just two days, reading it whenever he had a few minutes to spare. Kemari's mom told Redmond that her son always had his face in the book, even when he was out on the sidewalk.
The club just completed "Bad Boy," and is on to its second book: "Monster," a Myers novel about a teenager on trial for murder.
Most of the boys said they have already finished the book.
"In our classes, there are way less interesting books, and these books are way more interesting," Kemari said. "These books are about people."
It's still too early to know whether the book club is affecting students' reading test scores, but Steve Aupperle, Truesdell's vice principal in charge of literacy, said it is already changing the campus reading culture, and he suspects it is boosting students' reading levels.
Truesdell — a neighborhood school with a student body of black and Hispanic students who come mostly from low-income families — last year saw a jump in performance on the English portion of a national standardized test. In 2017, 33 percent of students met or exceeded expectations, compared with 18 percent in 2016.
The book club reads books that are intended for seventh- and eighth-graders.
"They are now seeing that reading is amazing and, through reading, you can find people to relate to," Aupperle said. "That's what reading is."
Redmond said he plans to take the book club to Harlem for a day in the spring to explore the setting of "Bad Boy." A book club for girls that formed after the boys' club became popular will be joining the trip.
But before Harlem, the boys have plans to finish discussing "Monster," delving into ideas of justice and peer pressure as they discover the fate of the teenage protagonist.
They already talked during book club about why they sometimes follow the lead of the popular people in class, even if it gets them in trouble.
"You're trying to impress them to fit in," fifth-grader Romeo Amaya said.
Redmond said the students are moving through the books quickly, and he has a half- dozen more selections lined up. That's good news for the enthusiastic readers, but it's proving tricky for Redmond: He already has to juggle his assistant principal duties with his doctoral studies. Now he has to keep up with his students' speedy reading pace.
"It's a blessing to be in this predicament, to have kids who are becoming ravenous readers," Redmond said. "We're disrupting the notion of what public education can be and what little black boys can do and be."