On a recent school day Jabari Sellars set about teaching the meaning of “bildungsroman” to his freshman English class at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. But it was early in the morning and late in the school year and attention was short for the long German word.
There were groans and yawns initially, but Sellars, 29, captured student interest by pointing to examples of the bildungsroman, or coming-of-age tale, in such popular movies as “Straight Outta Compton,” “Batman” and “Burning Sands.” Soon, the young teens were engaged in spirited conversations about characteristics of these stories, including loss of innocence, newfound independence and responsibility, and physical and mental growth.
The just-concluding academic year has also been a coming-of-age story of sorts for Ron Brown. It opened in August in Northeast Washington’s Deanwood neighborhood as the District’s only public single-sex high school amid a mix of excitement about its possibilities and doubts about what it could achieve. Now, administrators, teachers and students are taking stock, gauging their progress and assessing what the future holds as the school aims to ready these young men for college.
For Tremayne Warren, 14, this year has been transformative in ways he never expected. Like many classmates, he began the year not wanting to attend an all-boys school and swearing that he’d only spend one year there before transferring. There were difficult stretches along the way, but he said the school has helped him mature as a student and a person.
“I had some trouble with teachers,” Warren said. “I didn’t like being told what to do, but I realized that by hurting them I’m only hurting myself. I wasn’t caring. I was only thinking about myself. I’ve learned to care about other people’s feelings, and that helped me find out who I am. Now I know who I am, and I’m not afraid to show it.”
Like almost all of his fellow freshmen, Warren, who was wearing the school’s required blue blazer, white shirt and purple-and-gold striped tie, is returning in the fall and he’s happy about it. For now, just five of the 102 students who began the year are not planning to come back. Ron Brown launched with ninth-graders only and will expand each year until it reaches full size in fall 2019. The Washington Post has tracked the school’s debut since a student orientation last summer.
Jelani Burwell, another who plans to return, said the school helped him grow socially. He was home-schooled through eighth grade and appreciates the community he has found with his cohorts. He joined the chess and robotics clubs and has found others who share his interests.
“There are people who always check on me, and that helps build friendship and brotherhood,” the soft-spoken 15-year-old said one day last week between classes. “I wasn’t used to being in such a social environment, but I’ve made a few great friends.”
The school district doesn’t like to call Ron Brown an experiment, but there is great interest in the results and what they might mean for educators and students alike. It is one of a few all-male public schools in the country, and there is ongoing debate about whether the model is effective.
The school, open to students citywide through lottery, was created through then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s plan to invest $20 million in programs for black and Hispanic males from low-income families. Those groups make up 43 percent of students in D.C. Public Schools, and their academic achievements have fallen short of other groups. The student population at Ron Brown is 96 percent black, and nearly half receive free or reduced-price meals.
Ben Williams, the no-nonsense principal, is an intense figure who has guided the school every step of the way, from concept to implementation. Ron Brown is his baby, and he is both a proud and worried parent.
“It has taken a lot out of me emotionally, because you’re tied to each and every one of these young men,” said Williams as he sat in his office. “You try not to take a lot of it home, but it’s hard to do that when you know what a lot of them are going back home to. You know that you can’t save everybody, but you know the capability of all these young men. You know the struggle they’ve had and you’re able to identify with it because you’ve dealt with it yourself.”
The 37-year-old educator, who never knew his father and whose mother was a drug addict and prostitute, said he has found his calling at the school and wants the young men who attend it to know they are capable of overcoming any obstacle.
“These kids keep me humble, keep me driven,” Williams said. “This keeps me at peace with my past because I feel like I was carried through all of that for a reason.”
One major focus for Williams is student discipline. During the past year, the school had fewer than 10 suspensions and no expulsions. That compares favorably to other public D.C. schools, and it’s not an accident. The school has worked hard to address behavior issues without immediately resorting to penalties that remove students from the classroom.
“We’re a restorative school,” Williams said. “It’s about repairing harm. It’s about breaking that school-to-prison pipeline. We’re making sure that we’re rectifying the behavior and repairing the harm and not being reactive.”
That means keeping cool when things heat up, which can take considerable effort. But that approach to discipline is essential to the school’s success, Williams says.
“It can’t be embarrassing for the young man. It can’t be punitive,” he said. “We as adults wouldn’t feel comfortable with somebody yelling at us in the workplace so why do we do it to students? If we wouldn’t respond well to that, why would we expect our young men to respond well to that?”
For Schalette Gudger, an English teacher with 17 years of experience, making sure that students feel the school is a place of trust matters as much as the academic lessons she teaches.
“Even with the frustration of them not growing up as fast as we would like them to, we still found joy in the fact that this was a safe space for them to be boys,” she said. “Because their home lives sometimes are so riddled with situations where they have to be in an adult world that they sometimes are not ready for.”
Gudger, who is 37 and has three sons, said she was struck by changes in her students over the course of the year as they became more comfortable expressing emotions and began to trust the teachers and each other.
Williams has noticed those changes, too. He saw the students taking responsibility for their school, identifying with classmates as part of a family and looking for new opportunities. Word seems to be spreading about the enthusiasm the students have. Ron Brown has accepted 115 students for the next freshman class and five more for the sophomore class. There are 42 students on a waiting list for both classes. Williams said he is gratified that the work of his staff is being rewarded. And more than ever, he’s feeding off the energy of his young charges.
“They’re asking for more. They’re asking how can they be great,” Williams said. “You start to hear that and it puts more fire beneath you to provide more, to expose them to what they’re asking for.”