At 8:45 one recent Monday morning at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, the freshman class sat in a giant rectangle in the school’s brightly lighted meeting area. After some preliminary remarks, one student stood up to thank a teacher for extra help she provided to struggling readers. A teacher rose to laud five students for high marks on a recent test. Another classmate was complimented for leadership in the Boy Scouts.
This period of reflection, affirmation and exhortation is how every day begins at Ron Brown, the District’s only single-sex public high school, one of just a few dozen in the country. Some exchanges are lighthearted and funny, but just as often they tap into deeper territory.
Students have used the session to talk about walking away from a fight, dealing with problems at home, losing a friend to violence.
“These young men are able to focus on uplifting each other,” said Ben Williams, the school’s 36-year-old principal. “We’ve created a safe space to do things that most young men don’t, regardless of race, which is express emotion, express feelings, express pain. And they’re willing to take those risks without the feeling of being judged.”
Ron Brown is in the middle of its first year. The opening day jitters are gone. The fear of the unknown has dissipated. And the 100 students — the school began with only freshmen — have become as accustomed to the rituals of learning, sharing and growing in this new environment as they have to tying the purple-and-gold neckties they are required to wear every day.
Elijah Farrier takes a bus and two Metrorail lines every morning from his home in Southeast Washington to the school on Meade Street NE, a commute that can take two hours. All worth it, the 15-year-old said.
“The school has been great,” said Farrier, a broad smile crossing his face. “I feel like I’m making history here.”
Farrier admits he wasn’t thrilled about going to an all-boys school at first and wasn’t interested in wearing the coat-and-tie uniform. But a girl on the Metro told Farrier he looked good in the uniform, and that changed his outlook. His mother also set him straight.
“My mom said: ‘You need to hold off on the girls for a bit. High school is when you have to take things seriously,’ ” he said. “I really do miss having girls in school, but I’m able to focus. I guess my time will come.”
Jaiden Fisher, 15, is another student who says it took some time before the absence of females in class felt normal. Now he has adjusted.
“The school has shown me that there is just so much more in life, and I’m starting to think about who I can become,” Fisher said. “Here you can show who you are. There’s not a lot of trying to impress or trying to be who you’re not.”
Located in the Deanwood neighborhood, Ron Brown was a pet project of former D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson. In 2015, Henderson targeted $20 million in funding toward black and Latino boys and young men, who make up 43 percent of students in the D.C. Public Schools system and whose academic achievements often trail those of other groups. According to a 2015 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the national graduation rate for black males was 59 percent. It was 65 percent for Latino males and 80 percent for white males.
Williams, a soft-spoken but intense leader, said the single-sex environment allows students to be more vulnerable and open.
“I think the greatest accomplishment of this school in particular is to see our young men in this space, who come from this city, who come from some of the situations that they come from, feel safe enough to explain how they’re feeling,” he said. “Regardless of what happens going forward, we know that we’ve made that change for those individuals.”
The school’s all-male designation has not been without controversy. The American Civil Liberties Union questioned whether the District could create an all-boys high school without creating an all-girls high school as well. But so far there hasn’t been any legal action taken against the school system. D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine said in 2015 that the school did not violate the Constitution and that he would defend it in court if necessary.
Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of the ACLU of the Nation’s Capital, wrote in an email this month that the ACLU thinks that girls can apply to be enrolled at Ron Brown.
“The last we understood, per the [attorney general’s] office answer to our questions, girls would be allowed to enter the lottery for Ron Brown and if they were pulled in the lottery, they would be accepted,” she wrote. “If this is the case — and we have not received any complaints — there is no cause for action.”
In a statement issued last year, the school system maintained that Ron Brown is an all-boys school “designed for the specific needs of young men.” But it acknowledged the potential stickiness of the same-sex education issue, writing, “At the same time, DCPS continues to provide and expand the opportunities to meet the unique needs of our female students.”
Single-sex public education at the grade school and high school level had mostly fallen out of favor in the United States by the end of the 19th century, but there were some exceptions, including in the District well into the 20th century. There has been a resurgence of interest in single-sex schools over the past two decades, but there are no definitive studies that show single-sex education is better or worse than coeducational learning.
At Ron Brown, where a $58 million renovation project is ongoing, there are high expectations for the impact the single-sex environment will have on the students. School leaders hope its mission will appeal to young men across the city. By fall 2019, the school is expected to have a capacity of 500 to 600 students. The challenge for the school is reaching that threshold. Launching a freshman class was an all-hands effort for school leaders last spring. Now they have to fill a new freshman class and sustain the progress they’ve already made. Early indications are that there is significant interest among eighth-grade students and parents, but nothing is certain.
“We’ll judge our progress on next year’s enrollment when the numbers are finally in,” Williams said with a smile.
For now, he’s focused on continuing to develop the school’s identity and shape the lives of young men who chose to go there.
Theo White, 14, stood in a glistening hallway where giants of African American history — Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois — stare down from the walls.
“I’m more focused here,” said White, who plays on the basketball team and wants to be a lawyer. “I’m getting better grades. Everything’s looking good right now.”
“They could probably improve the lunches, but that’s about it.”