A Year Of Love And Struggle In A New High School Too many young, black men struggle in America's education system. Washington D.C. is trying to do something about it with a new, boys-only high school. NPR's Cory Turner and Education Week's Kavitha Cardoza spent hundreds of hours there, reporting on the birth of a school built on one word: Love.
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A Year Of Love And Struggle In A New High School

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A Year Of Love And Struggle In A New High School

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? Before we get to the show this week, we wanted to tell you about our live show coming up in Chicago next month. It's...

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Yes, so excited.

DEMBY: I know. Right?

MERAJI: Sorry to interrupt.

DEMBY: (Laughter) That's how you do. Presented by WBEZ and The Fest and curated by Third Coast.

MERAJI: Catch us, the CODE SWITCH team, taping at the Harris Theater on Friday, November 10. Joining us is Chicago's own Eve Ewing.

DEMBY: Whoop.

MERAJI: She's a poet, scholar and artist. She does all the things. And she...

DEMBY: All the things.

MERAJI: ...Has a new book out now. It's called "Electric Arches." Check her out on Twitter. Her handle is @wikipediabrown.

DEMBY: Tickets for that live show are on sale now. You can grab them at npr.org/events. Come out and kick it with us.

MERAJI: That's npr.org/events. Please buy your tickets - please.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Just a quick heads up that today's episode of the podcast contains some language that some people may find offensive. Cool? OK. Here's the episode.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: It's February 2017. We're in a pretty typical high school classroom. There's college pennants on the walls, whiteboards, that whole thing. But we're not in class.

DEMBY: We're in a circle with several black men, all in ties, sitting in chairs. One's a school psychologist. One is a social worker. One is a counselor.

MERAJI: And there is a woman in the circle named Tamara (ph). She's got a box of tissues on her lap. And the reason for the tissues? Her 16-year-old son.

TAMARA: I'm really scared for him. Really scared. And I just feel like it's nothing else I can do.

MERAJI: Her son's sitting next to her. He's slumped in his chair.

DEMBY: Oh, I know that teenage leave-me-alone slouch really, really well.

MERAJI: But he's not really defiant. Right? He's more sad. And we're going to call him D to protect his identity. Now D's mom, Tamara - all she wants to do is keep him safe and out of trouble.

TAMARA: I cannot hold him in the house. So even if I'm like - you're not leaving out the front door. I can get a bat. I'm not going to hit him with it, but I just want to sit it right there. I'm going to leave this bat right here. If you go out the door, I'm going to hit you. I know I'm not going to hit him. He knows I'm not going to hit him.

So he'll go in the room. He'll lock the door, and he'll go out the window. And what am I doing? I'm sitting there for hours scared - can't eat, can't think, can't do nothing because I'm scared to know where he is. I don't know where he is.

DEMBY: So this is what the school year has been like for D - he's been shot, he's seen his boy shot and killed, and now D himself is an armed robbery suspect. So this meeting in this classroom, this circle - it's an intervention. Here's the social worker from that circle.

ROOSEVELT COHENS: Is it difficult for you to look at Ma?

D: Who wants to see their mother hurt, though? Do you want to look at your mama cry?

DEMBY: Who wants to see their mother hurt, though? Do you want to look at your mama cry?

MERAJI: The social worker, he's in his 60s. And he's the elder in the group.

COHENS: Most black males in the school system don't come in contact with not one black male in the school system. You've got four black males sitting in this circle right here. Man, how blessed are you?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: You are listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And we're doing something we've never done on the podcast before. We're dedicating three episodes to one story, the story of the very first year of an experimental new school in Washington, D.C., called Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. It's a public school focused on educating young men of color. Almost all the students are African-American. Black boys are the most vulnerable kids in D.C. classrooms.

DEMBY: And America's classrooms 'cause they're suspended in much higher rates. In D.C., only 15 percent can read or do math at grade level. But Ron Brown is a high school of black boys with a faculty that is mostly black men. And that basically never happens because, Shereen, only 2 percent - 2 percent - of all the teachers in the United States are black men.

MERAJI: And there's research out there that shows that having a teacher who looks like you can totally change the way you feel about school and how you do. Research also shows black boys are way more likely to be suspended for the same kinds of things white boys do - and by teachers who look nothing like them.

DEMBY: And Ron Brown is fundamentally against suspending kids. It's central to the school's whole mission. If a kid acts out, trained professionals will circle up, just like we heard with D, and they talk it through.

MERAJI: So the obvious question here is, can an experiment like Ron Brown work?

DEMBY: For the past year, two reporters, Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team and Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week spent hundreds of hours there, from the earliest days of the school year in 2016 to the very last bell in the summer of 2017, with the first freshmen class at Ron Brown High.

MERAJI: Today's story is all about setting the groundwork for learning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Chapter 1 - Starting from Scratch. It's February 2016, one full year before D and his mother sit in that circle with the men of Ron Brown.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: There is no Ron Brown, at least not yet. First, it needs a leader, a principal who is both fearless and fiercely dedicated. Benjamin Williams is both.

BENJAMIN WILLIAMS: Good morning.

UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: Good morning.

WILLIAMS: I'm here to talk about a new school that D.C. Public Schools is opening in 2016. But first...

CARDOZA: Williams is 36, and he's never been a principal, just an assistant principal. But it's official. He will be the man to lead Ron Brown. The school is set to open in the fall of 2016, starting small, just a freshman class of a hundred students. That's it - no sophomores, no juniors, no seniors.

TURNER: It doesn't feel small to Williams, though, because he has to recruit every single one of them. That's why, at this moment, he's at a D.C. middle school speaking to a packed auditorium of 13-year-old and 14-year-old boys.

WILLIAMS: But first, I have a question for you. When you look at me - again, besides the bald that's very shiny right now, probably, because of the lights - what do you see?

CARDOZA: They see a man who is bald and very tall with a stare so intense it's as if he's looking through you and the wall behind you. One thing they can't see, because it's covered, is a tattoo on his forearm that says Hebrews 13:1.

TURNER: It's a Bible verse that has everything to do with why he's here today, let brotherly love continue.

CARDOZA: When Williams asks - what do you see? - one boy says a nice suit.

TURNER: Another, someone who's successful, maybe a CEO.

CARDOZA: He tells them he was born poor.

WILLIAMS: I'm the son of a prostitute. My mother was a drug addict. And I...

CARDOZA: The son of a prostitute. The students' jaws drop.

TURNER: At 4 years old, Williams says, he was living in a motel with his baby brother and his mother who was addicted to heroin.

WILLIAMS: She walks out the door. I went after her. I'm like Mom, where are you going? She told me one thing that's stamped on my heart for the rest of my life - no matter what, always take care of your brother. That was the last time that I saw my mom.

CARDOZA: He leaves the podium and the mic, talking intimately, like a confessional.

WILLIAMS: So now, for the next couple of days, it's me and my brother in this motel room. I'm trying to figure out how to take care of us. We loot. We run out of food. We run out of diapers. I'm outside in the trash can trying to find food. I'm scavenging. I did whatever it took. And finally, I get locked out of our motel room. And the maid finds us - is like, what's going on? And then we become a ward of the state.

How many of you know what that means?

CARDOZA: Many of the teens raise their hands. And it's moments like this that drive Ben Williams because he knows what they're going through. In their faces, he sees himself, a vulnerable child raised in poverty who'd attended 10 different schools before he was finally adopted.

But Williams is a survivor. And he tells them - in spite of it all, I earned a doctorate.

TURNER: And that's his message. If I can do it, so can you. Let me help you. Come to Ron Brown. He tells these young men - at my school, every adult will know your name, where you come from and where you want to go. You will matter.

WILLIAMS: Now, young men, I'm excited about this. (Clapping) I am excited about this. That first 100 young men that walk in that door are going to make history. My goal - when you walk in that door in 2016, you walk in as young men but when you leave, you leave as men with a skill set to navigate any part of this world that you want to.

CARDOZA: Williams says the school will be really different.

TURNER: They'll get to work on special projects.

CARDOZA: And go on field trips.

TURNER: It'll have sports, too, but not just basketball and football. Think swimming and archery.

CARDOZA: One boy, Antwan (ph), likes what he hears but says this new school is still missing something.

ANTWAN: Girls - I really like girls.

CARDOZA: Then again, he says...

ANTWAN: You know, it's no distractions at the end of day. So I could get to do all my work without any, like - trying, like, to be all tough for the girls and everything.

CARDOZA: So the pro is that there are no girls, and the con is that there are no girls.

ANTWAN: Yeah, it's crazy.

CARDOZA: Antwan says he wants to go to college somewhere outside of D.C.

ANTWAN: I'm tired of being in the city. Like, the school's, like, near Deanwood. And like, not too long ago, a boy got shot just by looking at somebody. Like, that's crazy. So - just need to get out.

TURNER: Antwan's talking about something that happened not far from Ron Brown, which is an old neighborhood school that's gotten a $60 million renovation. The school's a block from the nearest Metro train station. And as Williams is recruiting students, a teenager their age is shot and killed on the platform there. Another is stabbed to death. No doubt, this makes Williams' sales job even harder.

CARDOZA: But after pitching his school to eighth-graders across the district, many, including Antwan, agree to follow him. Principal Williams has his freshman class.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: Before we start, an explanation - you'll hear a lot of parents and students in this story but no last names and sometimes no names at all. That was our choice to protect their privacy.

TURNER: The fact is, they trusted us with a lot. The students of Ron Brown were just 14 and 15 years old when we did our reporting. And we don't want the moments that we captured of poor teenage judgment to haunt them for a lifetime of Google searches.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: Chapter 2 - The First Day.

It's Monday, August 22, 2016. The renovation crews are gone - in their place, balloons.

TURNER: Outside Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, students make their way to the front doors. They wear the school's navy blazer, khaki pants and a purple and gold striped tie. Many look like ninth-graders everywhere, awkward and anxious.

CARDOZA: But their parents are practically glowing with excitement.

VANESSA: He's going to really do good here.

CARDOZA: Vanessa snaps the tag off her son Kyree's (ph) new blazer.

VANESSA: They just look so professional. I mean, this morning it just brought tears in my eyes. I'm just like, oh, look at my baby. And he's like - Mom, Mom. I'm like, you're still my baby. I don't care.

CARDOZA: She's determined to see her baby through high school.

VANESSA: You know, 'cause I was getting hooked up with the wrong people. And that's why I told him, during the summer, I said, don't get caught up in the negative. And he was like Mommy, I understand. I'm going to finish school. I'm going to make you proud of me. And I be like yeah, because I didn't finish.

TURNER: One father named Theotric enrolled his son after years in private Catholic school. And he says he's worried about all the attention Ron Brown's been getting in the press because, he says, many reporters are getting it wrong.

THEOTRIC: All the media coverage that I'm reading about - and my son is reading about as well - depicts this school as a troubled black kids' school. These kids are just regular kids.

TURNER: Just regular kids - well, here's what that means. Ron Brown is not a neighborhood school. It's a lottery school, so its students come from all over the city. They're all young men of color and really diverse.

CARDOZA: There's academic diversity because the school is not selective. You don't have to have good grades or take a test to get in, so some students read at the 10th-grade level, others at the first-grade level. Roughly a third need special education.

TURNER: There's also socioeconomic diversity. Some parents are lawyers, real estate agents. There's even a member of Congress. Most, though, are low income, with nearly half qualifying for food stamps.

CARDOZA: And finally, there's family diversity. Some students live with both biological parents, but a majority are being raised by their mothers, grandmothers or both. And that's the most common reason we hear from these families for choosing Ron Brown. Here's Rhonda (ph), whose grandson is here on Day 1.

RHONDA: What I was impressed about was the fact that it was going to offer him, as a young man in a single-parent home, an opportunity to learn what it was to be a man.

CARDOZA: Not only that, she says, but the school also gives her grandson, who lives in public housing, a chance to say...

RHONDA: Just because I come from this neighborhood, that doesn't mean I have to be a part of this neighborhood. I can be more than that. And that's why I was excited about it.

TURNER: We hear other reasons, too. Melinda says her son, Absalom, asked to go to Ron Brown. He liked the idea of an all-boys school and, unlike Antwan, doesn't mind the lack of girls.

MELINDA: He's a competitive swimmer. And so he's around half-naked girls every day. So he gets his fill of girls.

(LAUGHTER)

CARDOZA: Paula (ph) has eight children. Her son Josiah is the youngest, her last.

PAULA: I wanted him to come someplace where he would know who he was, where he came from and what greatness is ahead of him.

CARDOZA: Greatness - Cory, that word came up a lot in our reporting - right? - in explaining the need for this school?

TURNER: Yeah, all the time. And the clearest example is really (laughter) - is just inside the school doors as the students walk in on Day 1. There's a poster of the school's mascot - it's a lion - wearing a crown. And the teachers and staff are all told - again, on Day 1 - inside these walls, the students are not to be called kids or boys; they're to be called kings.

KAYA HENDERSON: You have to speak greatness into young people.

TURNER: That's Kaya Henderson, who was head of D.C. Public Schools when Ron Brown began. For her, it wasn't just another school; it was an urgent labor of love.

HENDERSON: You know, the world is telling you that black men are dangerous. The world is telling you that black and Latino men are lazy. The world is telling you that they leave their families and, you know, all of these negative, you know, things. We have to counter that narrative.

CARDOZA: And this promise of a school that will build up young men of color is like a beacon drawing parents and teachers and city leaders to this place and this moment.

MURIEL BOWSER: I like that. Well, good morning, everybody. And welcome to the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School right here in Washington, D.C.

(APPLAUSE)

CARDOZA: You can measure the expectations of a new school by who's there to greet students on Day 1. Usually, it's the principal and teachers. Well, at Ron Brown, there's a crowd of reporters and TV cameras along with the mayor of Washington, D.C., Muriel Bowser. She's here to celebrate the school's unique mission.

BOWSER: Focusing on how we will develop our young men academically, socially and get them ready to be the fathers and young men that will lead our city forward.

TURNER: Principal Ben Williams takes just a few minutes at the mic and closes with this.

WILLIAMS: W.E.B. Du Bois once said, now is the accepted time - not tomorrow, not some more convenient season. We are...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: All in.

WILLIAMS: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: That's the school's motto, its rallying cry - we are all in.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

The challenge for Ron Brown's principal, Ben Williams, find a way to keep your most vulnerable students in school. We said this before, but it's worth repeating. In D.C., roughly 15 percent of black boys can read or do math at grade level.

MERAJI: To graduate, they need to catch up. And to catch up, they need to be in class. There are so many things that can stop that from happening. And living in poverty is a huge factor. You may not have food or a fixed address.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: You might have to take care of your baby brothers and sisters.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: It's hard.

DEMBY: And if you act out in class because of that stress, you know, you get suspended which means, by definition, you are not in school. And suspending kids from school has been common practice for decades, and it's a practice that hits black students especially hard. Black boys are suspended at more than three time the rate of white boys, but there's no evidence that differences in behavior explain away that disparity in punishment.

MERAJI: And don't take our word for it, right? That comes straight from the American Psychological Association, and that's why many big-city school systems are actively trying to find alternatives to suspension. Ron Brown's approach is pretty radical, and it's based on two big ideas.

First, for the students who act out, the last thing you should do is kick them out. Instead, the school uses something called restorative justice. That means a student who causes harm has to talk through his actions with school staff, and usually, the person or people he harmed. The goal is to find some sort of way to repair that harm.

DEMBY: The other big idea at the heart of Ron Brown's approach is this. Principal Williams knows maybe his biggest challenge is taking 100 young boys, and many of whom have had trash experiences in school, and get them to want to come to school because as we heard, their families want them there. The school wants them there. But do they want to be there?

MERAJI: Many don't. But Williams plan to change that is to make his school feel like a home.

DEMBY: Right.

MERAJI: ...Where every student feels loved and wanted, where they get three square meals a day - a safe space the students will want to keep that way.

DEMBY: All right, so how the hell do you do all this? At Ron Brown, it starts with a circle.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: Chapter 3 - Welcome to the Circle. Every morning at Ron Brown begins in one giant circle - all 100 kings. This is really radical because it's time - half an hour every day - the students could be in class, learning. It's a huge gamble.

TURNER: They do it because circles are key to the culture here, a symbol of that community that Gene and Shereen were talking about - of home and connectedness. It's the school's way of getting students hooked on school.

CARDOZA: So when someone does something they're proud of, they share it in the circle.

TURNER: When a student acts out, they circle up and talk it through.

CARDOZA: There's even time every morning for students to celebrate each other in the circle. They call it morning shoutouts.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I want to give a shoutout to Antonio (ph) for the incident that happened yesterday with Ms. Brown. We stepped away.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I want to shout out the entire basketball team yesterday because they bought home another W.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Where's Sammy (ph) at? Sammy, stand up. I want to give him a shoutout for service. I don't know who left all those trays back there this morning. And you guys know who you are. Sammy took the initiative to clean all that stuff up.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I'd like to shout out Ayonte (ph) because I'm not having such a good day, and I appreciate that he asked me if I was OK and if I needed any help. So I just want...

CARDOZA: All the kings are expected to join this morning circle by 8:40, blazers on, ties tied.

TURNER: Today is Friday. It's early in September 2016, and Principal Williams is feeling playful.

WILLIAMS: ...Mr. Porter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCK WITH YOU")

MICHAEL JACKSON: (Singing) You know that love survives.

WILLIAMS: So we have Michael Jackson playing, and there's nobody in here than can impersonate Michael Jackson.

TURNER: It's a challenge. Many students don't like the King of Pop, who cut his last studio album the year they were born. But a few do show off their glides. There's a kick, the crotch grab.

TURNER: Oh, you have to come to the center if you're going - oh, yes, got to come to the center and show that one. You got to come to the center and show that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF BELL RINGING)

CARDOZA: Soon, though, the bell rings, and William snaps the students to attention.

WILLIAMS: We are...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: ...All in.

WILLIAMS: We are...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: ...All in.

CARDOZA: Off goes the music, and the kings hurry back to their seats.

WILLIAMS: We are now in a place of business. We don't do dap. We don't high-five. We don't hit. We don't touch. We don't do any of those things. What we do is, we go to a peer, greet them, say hello, how's your week been? Have a great weekend. Let's take two minutes and do that, and then we're going to get into a serious business after this, all right? Two minutes - go.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: Hello, sir.

TURNER: After two minutes of milling and greeting, that serious business begins.

WILLIAMS: Who can tell me what happened yesterday?

TURNER: The kings exchange knowing glances. One finally raises his hand.

ZION: My name is Zion (ph), and somebody got shot 'round Anacostia High School.

TURNER: Not just somebody, but a student, Williams says - shot and killed outside a nearby high school.

WILLIAMS: A young man that looks like every one of us in his room right now. And I'm having difficulties sleeping. I'm having difficulty some days trying to get through because I'm not understanding what more I have to do in order to make sure that our young men aren't being eliminated.

TURNER: You can hear his voice crack. Many of the students are clearly caught off guard - not by the killing, though, by Williams. He's really putting himself out there, being vulnerable, showing them love, and they're uncomfortable with it. Some don't want to look at him, and they stare at the floor.

CARDOZA: This moment - this is part of the school's mission to create a safe, emotional space where young men can feel vulnerable, where they can talk about the world as it is and learn to share their feelings, their anger or happiness, feel that frustration.

TURNER: And they learn to do all of that by watching the adults do it. At one point, Williams even tells them, I broke down yesterday.

WILLIAMS: I don't want to run around the corner and see a young man lying on the ground. That's why we emphasize code switching. You're here to change the narrative, to show that there's another way.

TURNER: We decided to start the year with this moment of dancing and death because there will be more joy in the months ahead, to be sure, but also plenty of death. More black lives will be lost, killed not only by other young black men, but also by police.

At this point, the kings don't yet know the names of all of their classmates, but they do know who Michael Brown is and Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile. And a week later, when news breaks out of Tulsa, they'll learn a new name - Terence Crutcher.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Chapter 4 - The CARE Team. Many things set Ron Brown apart from other public schools. Its approach to academics is one of them. But we're not going to talk about that - at least, not yet. Right now, we're going to focus on something called the CARE Team.

DAWAINE COSEY: Amir (ph), tuck that shirt. Amir, tuck that shirt. Tuck this shirt. Tuck that shirt.

CARDOZA: Dawaine Cosey is a member of the CARE Team. He's 30, with a shaggy goatee and a quick, easy laugh.

COSEY: (Laughter).

CARDOZA: At the beginning of the year, he does a lot of this.

COSEY: Kevin (ph), tuck that shirt before you button that jacket.

CARDOZA: Cosey says the uniform, like the name kings, is a way of getting students used to structure and high expectations - two things, he says, many don't get at home. When one walks through the door wearing his tie like a headband...

COSEY: Why you got that thing around your head? What is that? Hey, come here, come here.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Oh, don't...

COSEY: Take this off.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Oh, no, what you mean, take that off?

COSEY: Take that off. Take that off.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Why?

COSEY: This ain't that - ain't no headbands up in here. Y'all make it to class quick before the bell ring, please.

TURNER: Cosey's tone is a balancing act between firmness and love.

COSEY: When your stuff stinks, I'ma tell you it stinks. When your attitude is funky, when you're wrong - like, all of this, this is love. Accountability is absolutely love. Discipline is love. It is a way - like, I love you, so I have to make sure you're OK, you're good, you're structured, you're responsible. Like, that is what love looks like.

TURNER: You've probably heard of no-excuses schools where students wear uniforms and have to walk down the halls in single file. Or maybe you've seen that movie where Morgan Freeman plays a tough-talking principal with a bullhorn and a baseball bat. Well, Ron Brown and Dawaine Cosey are so not that.

COSEY: And so I tell the guys here all the time, like, you're going to get love, and there's really nothing you can do about it.

CARDOZA: The CARE Team's job is to get to know the students, their strengths and weaknesses, who has a short fuse, who is living on a friend's couch, who spent the night in jail.

TURNER: The group of roughly half a dozen, mostly men, includes a psychologist, social worker and several counselors. They keep the students on track emotionally and academically. They run the circles, handle discipline and even help train the teachers.

CARDOZA: So when a student punches a security guard, or gets caught sharing a sex tape or needs help applying to space camp - all things that will happen this year - he has to sit down with the CARE Team.

TURNER: This, too, is radical because many schools have one or two people who do this spread across hundreds of students, and sometimes, they have to teach, too.

CARDOZA: But at Ron Brown, there are six CARE Team members for just 100 students. That's a huge investment. Some would call it another gamble on adults who aren't in the classroom, teaching.

TURNER: At one point, a student wanders in half an hour late. Cosey's there waiting for him.

COSEY: Man, oh, man. Look at what time it is.

TURNER: Cosey doesn't write him up, though. He gives him a hug.

COSEY: Look at you. Come here. Come here. I'm excited. That's good, right there. That is good. All right, get that tie on, all right?

CARDOZA: The young man has a lot on his plate. He has to get his little sister to school on the train. And today, he's earlier than he's ever been, in part because Cosey's been working with him on a morning plan. Cosey says, too often, schools simply punish students' behavior without asking, why do you behave this way?

COSEY: Like, they have a reason. Like, ask them why. That's how you fix things. Like, so I think I appreciate Dr. Williams because we're - we have the opportunity to just ask why. I think my job is a lot of whys. Like, why do you feel? Why are you - or what's going on?

TURNER: Early on, the reason why many other students are late or out of uniform is pretty clear. They don't want to be here. They're not hooked - at least, not yet. In fact, one student surprises the CARE Team with his plan to get out of school. Here's Patricia Odom, the team's only woman.

PATRICIA ODOM: Oh, my goodness, we got a genius. We got a little mini-mastermind, Dr. Evil.

TURNER: Cosey's just heard from the mother of a student who's missed several days already, and she says she keeps getting emails from the school telling her to keep her son home.

COSEY: The pipes, the such and such, the - he is going to miss three days - bomb threat. They're going to be out for this amount of - we'll email you back when they can come back.

TURNER: The plumbing's fine, Cosey tells her. There was no bomb threat, either. Those emails - yeah, they didn't come from us.

COSEY: He done made an email. Now, Mom, I need you to know that...

CHARLES CURTIS: It's not coming from Gmail.

COSEY: I need you to know that we would not have a Gmail account (laughter).

CARDOZA: Charles Curtis, the team's psychologist, has seen a lot, and even he's impressed.

CURTIS: Wow (laughter). He put in Ron Brown, and Gmail hit him back with, there's already a Ron Brown, so you're going to be RonBrown3500 (ph). He was like, accept.

(LAUGHTER)

CURTIS: I'll take it.

CARDOZA: Curtis runs the CARE Team. To them, he's Chuck. To students, he's Dr. Curtis. He likes loud ties and matching socks.

TURNER: In these early days, it's hard to pin down what the CARE Team does because they do so much.

CURTIS: We're at your house. We're in your face. We're in your business. We're caring about you. We're at your mom's funeral. We're in the class when you're struggling.

CARDOZA: The job is complicated, but the point is simple. Students can't learn if they're not in school, and students who feel loved and supported are much more likely to be in school.

TURNER: Yeah, and, you know, Kavitha, I - this explains so much of what's different about Ron Brown that I think we should say it again.

CARDOZA: Go on, then.

TURNER: So if you're listening, you're jogging or you're cooking, whatever it is, use both ears right now. Students can't learn if they're not in school. And students who feel loved and supported are much more likely to stay in school, which is why, Cosey says...

COSEY: What we preach here is community.

CARDOZA: And that community is built on circles, and love and the one thing 14-year-old boys hate most - talk about their feelings. If you can't keep up in class or had a fight with your mom, you need to tell someone.

TURNER: If you're angry, or frustrated or happy, share it. Be vulnerable, Cosey tells them, even if that's the last thing you want to be.

COSEY: They never want to talk about their feelings - until they get out the moment, you know. And like, you ain't going nowhere till we talk about it. So like, this student - like, we were in the bathroom. He went to the bathroom, so I went to the bathroom. We're going to sit here in this - you're going to stand in the stall. I'm going to stand here at the door. We're going to talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Chapter 5 - The Talk Gets Tough.

We've spent a lot of time hearing about love and support and circles. It's time now to get a little ugly. The fact is students act out, especially teenage boys.

CARDOZA: If this school is going to be different, it's got to handle that behavior in a profoundly different way from other schools. And it does. In fact, its methods are so different, it's a little jarring for some teachers, too.

TURNER: We're going to zoom in on one behavior that's really popular among 14-year-old boys, cursing. It's an age-old challenge for schools, especially when it happens in the classroom and directed at a teacher.

CARDOZA: And it's a common reason students are kicked out of class and even school. So if your goal is to keep these teens in school, you've got to come at cursing from a different angle.

TURNER: And that's exactly what Curtis, the psychologist, does at an early teacher training. He tells them, not all cursing is cursing.

CURTIS: Fuck this, moderate profanity; fuck you, bitch, targeted profanity - you see what I'm saying?

CARDOZA: When a student blows up in class, Curtis says, teachers need to ask themselves, what is he trying to say? - and, back to what Cosey said earlier, why is he saying it? Maybe he's behind academically and can't keep up, or maybe he had a rough night at home.

TURNER: Shatane Porter is a counselor on the CARE Team, and he's at this teacher training, too. He says frustration or exhaustion or trauma - well, it can sound threatening.

SHATANE PORTER: If I'm having a bad day - I haven't eaten, somebody got shot - whatever the case may be, school is a safe zone for me. So this should be a place that I should be able to come and express my thoughts. I may have - I may be having a bad day. I may come in and I'll be like - fuck.

TURNER: The teachers in the room jump.

PORTER: This may be, actually, a sign of respect and trust that I can cuss in your class and say to you, I'm having a bad day. Fuck - not fuck you - just fuck.

CARDOZA: Now I'm sure some of you out there, especially teachers, are probably saying right now, this is crazy.

TURNER: Right. I can hear them. It's not a teacher's job to do this kind of fuck-parsing. When these young men get into the world, they can't curse out their boss or the police.

CARDOZA: And it's not fair to other students in the class who can't learn if their teacher's too busy dealing with a disruptive student.

TURNER: Well, we hear you.

CARDOZA: Yes, we do.

TURNER: Duly noted.

CARDOZA: In fact, in an early fit of frustration, world history teacher Travis Bouldin says this very thing to one of his best classes.

TRAVIS BOULDIN: We are not animals. We have to change that because you - it's not OK.

CARDOZA: Right before lunch, several students had begun cursing at each other. And Bouldin shuts them down with this.

BOULDIN: In the real world, people are not going to want to work with you if you're cursing at them nonstop. You cannot continue to speak to each other like you're nothing. I'm done. If I sound frustrated, I am.

CARDOZA: So what does he do next? Well, in many schools, the teacher would simply kick these students out.

TURNER: But not Bouldin and not at Ron Brown.

BOULDIN: Since we're so great yelling at people, we can leave here after five people raise their hand and turn to someone, give them a compliment - something they've done well.

TURNER: That's right, turning cursing into compliments. It's kind of like beating swords into plowshares.

BOULDIN: Kai (ph), you had your hand raised. Is there someone that you want to speak to?

KAI: I wanted to say DeAndre did a great job.

BOULDIN: With what? I want some details. Tell him.

KAI: You did a great job doing your test and finishing silently.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: That's the Ron Brown Way. Here, cursing hurts the community. So how do you repair that harm? With compliments.

TURNER: The problem is this is hard work. It takes time. Many schools don't have the patience or the staff or the training or, frankly, the faith in kids' ability to change to do this.

CARDOZA: The easiest thing for a teacher is simply to kick a disruptive student out of class, out of school - out - to show zero tolerance for bad behavior. And that's what most schools do. As Gene and Shereen said earlier, suspensions have been common practice for decades, and they hit black students especially hard.

TURNER: Curtis, the psychologist, tells teachers at that early Ron Brown training, discipline in most schools looks a lot like discipline in most courtrooms. And it does not work.

CURTIS: The reality is that if I made a mistake, though, that time I spent in jail does not wipe away the mistake. It certainly does not teach me how to perform better and not make that mistake again.

CARDOZA: The challenge for the CARE Team in these first few weeks is building an alternative system of consequences. So Spanish teacher Kathrine Avila is all for not kicking students out. But she's one of several teachers who worry it's not yet clear what they're supposed to do instead.

KATHRINE AVILA: The system that we have is good, but it's not consistent in this building in terms of consequence. So we don't know what the consequences are.

TURNER: This matters even more when things escalate beyond cursing. And they will, says Principal Williams, given what he knows about his freshmen.

WILLIAMS: Our kids, generally - if I had to add up all the days of suspension, I know it's over a thousand at least - at minimum in the past two years. I mean, they were suspended every other week. They would get back to school for a week and get suspended again.

CARDOZA: Students admitted as much to me. Here's one king named Rashawn (ph).

RASHAWN: I didn't really go to school.

CARDOZA: What do you mean?

RASHAWN: I was either suspended or I skipped school.

CARDOZA: We heard this from many students talking about their time in middle school. Some felt their former teachers didn't care about them or their classes. For others, the work was too hard or too boring. And all knew if they got suspended, the school would simply send their work home anyway. So many told us they tried to get kicked out.

TURNER: In September, this is happening at Ron Brown, too, but for a different reason, Cosey says. Many of them simply aren't used to taking directions from men.

COSEY: They don't have consistent, male positive role model. And so I think a lot of our pushback in the first month was that. Who are you (laughter)? You know, like...

TURNER: And when the answer is we're Ron Brown. We love you. And no, you're not getting kicked out.

COSEY: They're like, is this real? Why don't y'all suspend me? And I'm like, you know you're not getting suspended. And I think that blows their mind. Why y'all won't send me home? Because we can just talk about it and y'all would be fine.

CARDOZA: For Principal Williams and the rest of the staff, love and talk can fix just about anything. But it's also easy to believe that until someone gets hurt.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Chapter 6, the last chapter for today - we'll call it Real Consequences.

At Ron Brown, when students act out in class, teachers have two options. They can try to handle it themselves in the room.

CARDOZA: Or they can call in the CARE Team. One day in October, Cosey hurries to the art room. There's been a fight. One student has punched another in the face hard enough to draw blood. Cosey removes them both, walking them to something called the Reflection Room.

COSEY: So yes, technically in an hour...

CARDOZA: It's an empty classroom that doubles as Cosey's office. He often has a relaxing candle burning.

TURNER: And here, the school practices something known as restorative justice. Think of it as the opposite of zero tolerance. It is tolerance, as a policy.

CARDOZA: It's relatively new to U.S. schools and hasn't been studied a lot here. But it's been around for decades in places like Australia, New Zealand and Brazil, and the results have been promising.

TURNER: Here's how it works. Instead of being suspended or pushed out, rule-breakers are pulled in to a circle.

CARDOZA: Usually, other CARE Team members, even parents join in, as we heard at the very top of this episode with D and his mother. Today, though, it's just Cosey. And he sits with the two kings to talk through their feelings.

TURNER: Again, the goal here is not simply to punish the puncher but to understand why the punch happened and to keep it from happening again.

COSEY: Now, listen, I'm going to get what he said from him and then I'm going to resume with you.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: All right.

COSEY: OK. You don't respond to him.

Sure, what did you say?

CARDOZA: First, Cosey listens carefully to both sides.

COSEY: So how did his hang in your face if he's up against the wall?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Because the desks are like right there and right there. He...

COSEY: That's a long way, brother.

CARDOZA: It turns out these two students have been at each other for a while now outside of school - mostly silly stuff, smack talk. But today, it blew up. Even with Cosey mediating, the two go at it again.

COSEY: OK. Are we done?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Yeah, you ran away - ran behind Mr. Sellars like a little punk.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: (Unintelligible) I ain't run behind Mr. Sellars.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Yes, you did. Yes, you did. I'm glad you did.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: I ain't no (unintelligible) right now.

COSEY: Hello. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: What?

COSEY: So - y'all doing too much. This is my space. And you're not going to disrespect me or my space. So when you hear me talk, you are not talking. You are civil enough to have a conversation.

CARDOZA: But it turns out, they're not - at least right now. And both are too proud to back down.

COSEY: What you are doing right now is existing from a place of your pride. Here's what's going to happen - somebody out there is going to say something to you. Since you're so prideful, you're going to do something in your pride that's going to end up getting you killed or hurt.

So what you need to do is make conscious decisions of what you can do to remove yourself from situations instead of making situations worse.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: I heard you. You keep saying that.

COSEY: And I'm going to keep saying it. You're - OK, so here's what I need you to understand. Your telling me you're hearing me is not going to shut me up.

CARDOZA: This is as forceful as Cosey gets, but he's still not getting through to them.

TURNER: And this is the early story at Ron Brown. Reflection and restorative justice only work if students are open to it. And some are, but many aren't - at least not at the moment.

CARDOZA: Research shows that restorative justice is so different, it takes time, sometimes years for students and staff to get used to the idea and invested in it. Cosey knows this and has faith they'll get there.

COSEY: Who plants the seed today and expects a harvest tomorrow? Like, I don't. it's going to be long, especially because, for most of the students, we're still tilling up the soil.

TURNER: Today, though, that tilling is exhausting. Cosey finally calls the boys' parents, and the day goes from bad to worse.

CARDOZA: One father tells him it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know Ron Brown should stop with this restorative justice stuff. If the school is going to be a safe space, he says, it needs real consequences.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: I'm Kavitha Cardoza for Education Week.

TURNER: And for NPR, I'm Cory Turner.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Next week on CODE SWITCH, we'll meet some of the teachers at Ron Brown. Here's one English teacher.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #1: I'm going to be hard on them because I teach the language that helps them unlock the codes that we've been talking about - telling them to switch. I know when to say urrea (ph), and I know when to say area. And if they will allow me, I will give them what I have. But I'm not going to fight behaviors. I expect greatness.

MERAJI: Another English teacher says having high expectations of Ron Brown's young kings is one thing.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER #2: But all of that is predicated upon the idea that these kids know how to read.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: That's in Part 2 of our three-part series documenting an experimental new high school for young men of color.

DEMBY: And that's our show. If you're not already subscribed to our podcast, please do. Also, we'd love to hear from y'all. So email us at codeswitch@npr.org, or tweet at us. We're @nprcodeswitch.

MERAJI: Today's episode was edited by Steve Drummond and produced by Lauren Migaki. We had original music from Nick DePrey and Louis Weeks. Thanks to our Education Week partners, Scott Montgomery, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and Lesli Maxwell.

DEMBY: Shoutout to the rest of the fam.

I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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