To Fail Or Not To Fail: The Fierce Debate Over High Standards With 40 percent of its students at risk of failing, one radical new high school in Washington, D.C. wrestles with whether to lower its own high expectations.
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To Fail Or Not To Fail: The Fierce Debate Over High Standards

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To Fail Or Not To Fail: The Fierce Debate Over High Standards

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? Before we get the show started this week, we want to tell you about our live show coming up in Chicago next week presented by WBEZ and The Fest and curated by Third Coast.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Catch us, the CODE SWITCH team, live at the Harris Theatre Friday, November 10. Joining us - poet-scholar-artist, Chicago's own Eve Ewing. Her latest book is called "Electric Arches."

DEMBY: We've also invited friend of the show Hari Kondabolu to kick it with us. He's a comedian. He's a podcast host. He's now a filmmaker. His new film is called "The Problem With Apu."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE PROBLEM WITH APU")

HARI KONDABOLU: Growing up, I had no choice but to like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HANK AZARIA: (As Apu) Thank you. Come again.

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer) Hey, Ganesha, want a peanut?

AZARIA: (As Apu) Please do not offer my god a peanut.

MERAJI: You can get your tickets for our live show online. Go to info at WBEZ/events (ph).

And just a quick heads up - today's episode of the podcast contains language that people might find offensive. All right, let's start the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji. And this is the final installment of our special project, "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep."

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

DAWAINE 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.

SHAKA GREENE: If you leave high school and you still make a 600 on the SAT, nobody cares on how much you were loved. Congratulations. You feel good about yourself, but you still are reading and writing and counting below average.

CHARLES 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 mama's funeral.

SCHALETTE GUDGER: 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 tell them all the time I was born and raised in Prince George's County, Md. I know when to say urrea (ph), and I know when to say area.

JUSTIN: I'm not one of those people who fall to the...

SIERRA: A statistic.

JUSTIN: A statistics who falls to the stereotype. I want to do something in this world. And I think Ron Brown is really helping me to set up and become that person I really want to be, and that's a leader.

MERAJI: We've been following the first year of the first freshman class of an all-boys high school in Washington, D.C., a high school designed for the city's young men of color.

DEMBY: And as we've heard over the past two weeks, what makes Ron Brown so different is that it goes all in on two big approaches. One, there's the academics, like algebra and English and biology - that's the kind of stuff that every ninth-grader everywhere is expected to know and learn.

MERAJI: But the school also invests a lot of time and energy on trying to get its kids, who the faculty call kings, to develop socially and emotionally. Last year, the school's first year, reporters Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week and Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team spent hundreds of hours at Ron Brown watching teachers and its CARE Team attempt this very special balancing act.

DEMBY: At the beginning of the second semester, it's clear that Ron Brown is out of balance. The school's focus on culture and community and restorative justice - all that stuff, that works pretty well. But those assemblies, those circles, those field trips - that takes up what would otherwise be valuable class time. Yeah.

MERAJI: And report cards have been mailed, and they're not good. Forty percent of the kings are now at risk of failing ninth grade. Most of them have at least one D or an F on their report card.

DEMBY: So that first semester, it was all about getting students at Ron Brown to buy into the school's really unique culture. But the challenge later in the year is just preventing academic meltdown.

MERAJI: Here's Kavitha and Cory.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Chapter 1 - I'm Worried.

MATTHEW LAWRENCE: You ready?

(SOUNDBITE OF DICE RATTLING)

LAWRENCE: Adds to 12 and multiplies to 32.

CARDOZA: For math teacher Matthew Lawrence, today is like any other workday.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Except for one big difference - it's Saturday.

LAWRENCE: Oh.

CARDOZA: Instead of his usual shirt and tie, Lawrence is wearing a Superman T-shirt.

TURNER: He sits with half a dozen students. They roll dice to come up with basic math problems.

CARDOZA: A fun race to see who can solve them first.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Got that jont (ph) - no, no, no - got that...

LAWRENCE: First...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: What? No.

LAWRENCE: Second...

TURNER: This kind of practice is key to getting students back on track. And it's the kind of thing they don't have time for during the week.

CARDOZA: That's because Lawrence and the other math teacher, Shaka Greene, get students just twice a week.

TURNER: So they have to pack a ton of new concepts into every lesson, several days' worth of learning each day.

CARDOZA: Too much, Greene says, because many of his students still can't do basic math.

GREENE: My pushback is always, I can't teach the book right now because my students are still learning to add 49 plus 17.

TURNER: This Saturday school, it's a good start. And the students who showed up are genuinely having fun and learning.

CARDOZA: One teen, Paul, tells me Saturday school has made a huge difference for him.

PAUL: It's like a lightbulb in my head came on 'cause I started getting more help and more support. I went from an F to a B.

CARDOZA: After class, I ask Lawrence - do you think everyone can catch up?

LAWRENCE: That's a tall order. We're testing, on average, about a fifth-grade level. So to make up four years of math in seven Saturdays is asking the impossible.

TURNER: Students are making progress. It's just not enough.

CARDOZA: And here, Lawrence is speaking for every teacher at Ron Brown. They're all feeling the pressure, he says.

TURNER: In just a few months, the kings will have to take big, district-wide standardized tests.

LAWRENCE: We're seeing goals socially and emotionally, and that's great. But outside of these halls, no one cares. They only care about the scores. And they're seeing these kids aren't scoring, so the school is not working.

TURNER: And principal Ben Williams is clear when we ask...

CARDOZA: Will failing students be allowed to move up to the 10th grade?

WILLIAMS: No, we don't socially promote. And so they won't receive the credits necessary to be 10th-graders.

CARDOZA: Their only option, he says, will be summer school. But Williams is determined not to let it come to that.

TURNER: He has a plan, and Saturday school is part of it.

CARDOZA: So is a new literacy specialist.

TURNER: Schedules also change. Students will get extra time in their regular classes, including math.

CARDOZA: As well as some study hall. Principal Williams also tries one more thing.

TURNER: He enlists the CARE Team to help with academics.

CARDOZA: Remember, the team normally leads the school's social and emotional efforts.

TURNER: So it's a little jarring when Williams asks them to focus on study skills, like note taking and getting work done.

PATRICIA ODOM: They suck at turning in missing work.

CURTIS: Terrible.

ODOM: They're not going to get there just by us saying - well, here's your deadline.

CARDOZA: Patricia Odom is the only member of the team who also teaches. And she says students lack basic academic hygiene.

ODOM: We need to help them organize themselves.

CURTIS: Is that not a teacher thing? Do the teachers not need to practice differently?

TURNER: That voice there - that's psychologist Charles Curtis.

CARDOZA: He's head of the CARE Team. In a second, you're going to hear Dawaine Cosey.

TURNER: Who also feels, even though the team's added a new member recently, that they're still being asked to do too much.

COSEY: Supporting them...

ODOM: When you have 40-something kids below 2.0's...

COSEY: So more reason for me that the need to be in a class.

ODOM: They're struggling because they don't know how to be high school students.

COSEY: Part of this is parental support. And also part of this is, like, just level of maturity, like stuff you're going to learn. Everything isn't CARE Team is going to come in, swoop like Superman and be - like, save the day. And I...

TURNER: Cosey says learning to take notes and respect deadlines - it's just something students have to figure out.

CARDOZA: I did, he says, and I didn't have a CARE Team.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Chapter 2 - Alarm Bells.

At this point, every adult at Ron Brown is feeling the heat. So it's fitting, in early March...

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM SOUNDING)

TURNER: ...The fire alarm goes off.

PRERECORDED VOICE #1: A fire has been reported in the building. A fire has been reported in the building.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM SOUNDING)

CARDOZA: There's a gas leak. Students and staff hurry outside to the football field. Math teacher Shaka Greene sits on a bench looking tired.

GREENE: The more pressure that the administration feels, the more pressure, as teachers, we feel.

TURNER: He's quiet for a long beat and then smiles at something happening on the football field.

CARDOZA: Evidence that the students don't feel nearly the pressure that he does - in fact, they're completely oblivious to all this tension behind the scenes.

TURNER: Cosey from the CARE Team has a football, and he's being tackled by eight or 10 different students. It's playful, and they love it.

CARDOZA: It's something we've seen most of the men in the building do, get physical with the students. And it's something I've never seen in a school before.

TURNER: Yeah, stuff like play wrestling, headlocks - and they'll do it in the hallways, even the cafeteria sometimes. So I ask Greene about it.

GREENE: These are 14-year-old young men who are as much boys as they are men. And they still need to run and touch and play and push and shove and do all of those things and it be OK. They can just have fun. I personally love to see it.

CARDOZA: A student named Stefan (ph) walks up. He's one of many who say hi to Mr. Greene, who's clearly a favorite here.

TURNER: As always, Stefan wears his football cleats slung around his neck by the laces.

STEFAN: I love it at this school. The teachers - they build memories that won't be forgotten.

TURNER: Stefan is 15 with locks down to his shoulders.

STEFAN: 'Cause I know when I graduate I'm back at ninth-grade year and I'm going to say - oh, I remember Ms. G, how she used to uplift me at my worst times.

TURNER: Is G your go-to?

STEFAN: Sometimes. Or it's Mr. Greene, Mr. Cosey, Mr. Lakes, Mr. Smith, Coach Mac (ph).

TURNER: So you basically just named, like, every grownup at the school (laughter).

STEFAN: Hey.

CARDOZA: One of seven children, Stefan lives with his mother, who calls him her little chocolate drop. She loves Ron Brown because she says there are so many positive male role models.

TURNER: On the football field, Stefan tells me that his father is around but not really in his life. He remembers once walking to pick up his little sister at her school.

STEFAN: I saw my father on a bike. And then I said, what's up? But he just looked at me and he rode off. Like, he looked at me dead in my face and rode off.

TURNER: How'd that make you feel?

STEFAN: It hurts. To know your father and he says that he loves you with all his heart but does not show it - that hurts worse other than your father just leaving out your life.

CARDOZA: But Stefan is learning from Mr. Greene to turn his disappointment into motivation.

STEFAN: People say - oh, you're going to be just like your father. I'm not going to be like my father. I'm going to be better than my father.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: Chapter 3 - A Window into the World.

At this point, with 40 percent of freshmen at Ron Brown at risk of failing, we've got to ask - should they spend more time in the classroom?

TURNER: And the school's answer is - remember, the Ron Brown approach was designed to be bigger than the classroom - to also show students the world outside, constantly exposing them to new places and new voices and new experiences.

CARDOZA: Low-income students are often at a disadvantage because they need to be learning outside of school as well. But that requires a lot from parents, especially time and money that many simply don't have.

TURNER: From going to the library or a museum, to visiting other states and other countries.

CARDOZA: This kind of enrichment can be a huge difference-maker.

TURNER: And that's why, at Ron Brown, they've baked it into their mission. The idea is that all of this outside learning will help them inside the classroom, too.

CARDOZA: So students go to Capitol Hill to meet lawmakers.

TURNER: They visit the offices of Northrop Grumman and chat with engineers.

CARDOZA: One day, some of the school's top students sit in on an English class at a nearby university.

UNIDENTIFIED COLLEGE INSTRUCTOR: That line - I find that last line very incredibly moving - that she just gets hold of us thataway (ph).

TURNER: Afterwards, one king, DeAndre (ph), says the class showed him how much more he and his classmates could be doing.

DEANDRE: Like, we were just scratching the surface. But they, like, really went into it. And I was like, wow.

CARDOZA: That wow - Ron Brown says that's exactly why they do this, even though it means taking the kings out of school.

TURNER: Finally, every month, students file onto a bus and tour a college campus.

CARDOZA: Many don't have parents who graduated from college so don't naturally think it's a possibility for them.

TURNER: They visit several historically black colleges and universities. And now in April, just before spring break, many students leave school early for a three-day trip to Atlanta.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Hey, who got my charger, man?

CARDOZA: First stop - a museum, the Center for Civil and Human Rights.

PRERECORDED VOICE #2: Human rights are the rights you have simply because you're human.

TURNER: One young man we met last week, Dahi (ph), is astonished to read about synagogues being burned and human trafficking across Asia. He's not familiar with civil rights struggles in other countries.

CARDOZA: Then he comes to the section of the museum devoted to America's Jim Crow laws.

DAHI: (Reading) No businesses shall serve food to white and colored people in the same room unless they are separated by a solid partition.

Stupid (sighing). But if - why can't we just work together and find a solution? If we work together, we can do so much stuff.

TURNER: It's important to say at this point that Dahi's life, like most of his classmates', is still largely segregated. Even if they didn't attend Ron Brown, most would still live in predominantly black neighborhoods and attend predominantly black schools. Dahi says he knows two white people. Both are teachers at Ron Brown.

DAHI: It gets boring just talking to the same people that look like you, you know. It's like talking to yourself. So it'd be nice, you know - different perspectives on different things. Too bad I don't see a lot.

CARDOZA: The next day, the kings make their much anticipated visit to Morehouse College with its star-studded list of alumni.

TURNER: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Olympian Edwin Moses, filmmaker Spike Lee.

WILL CHANDLER: This is one of the best campuses there are for young black men.

TURNER: That's the outgoing student body president of Morehouse making his pitch to the Ron Brown crowd.

CARDOZA: One evening at Morehouse, the students attend what's called a probate show at a campus fraternity. It's basically a party to celebrate all of the frats' newest members.

TURNER: This is a big night for psychologist Charles Curtis. He, too, is a Morehouse grad.

CARDOZA: We're sitting outside waiting for the step show to start, and Curtis is beaming.

And so tell me - you look so happy. And I've seen you, like, laugh more than I ever have when you've seen your brothers here.

CURTIS: (Laughter) Yeah.

CARDOZA: So what does it mean to you to be here?

CURTIS: I love it. This is - when I - when we walked up - like, this is like going home to your mom's house. Like, it feels like being home. Everybody smiling, like, here around all this good feeling. And so yeah, it's hard not to smile (laughing).

CARDOZA: To Curtis, Ron Brown feels like a high school version of Morehouse.

TURNER: And he says the idea behind both, a safe space for young men of color...

CURTIS: Like, no hyperbole - I think for them it's really life or death. Like, this - they need this. They need to understand you're beautiful, you're worthwhile, you're lovable. And I think honestly, like, the world is so vigorously against them, they need to kind of be encapsulated while they learn that.

CARDOZA: Later that night, after the students get back to the hotel, I give my recorder to one of them, Rashawn (ph), and ask him to interview his classmates.

RASHAWN: How did you like the whole trip overall?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I liked Morehouse, and I plan to go to Morehouse.

RASHAWN: What's your opinion about Atlanta?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I stepped outside for a couple of minutes, and I seen rats. Like, the rat was like an alligator.

(LAUGHTER)

RASHAWN: Sounds like you're having fun.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: The only thing I enjoyed from Golden Corral was the ice cream.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: We went to go see some good colleges. My roommates was cool. I ain't have no stink bombs. I would consider going to Clark Atlanta because they got an architecture major.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Even though the students are some 700 miles from their classrooms at Ron Brown, their academic struggles still find them. The fraternity party - well, it clearly gets some of them thinking about college in a meaningful way, maybe for the first time.

CARDOZA: The next morning, they ask their tour guide questions like, what do I need to do to get in?

TURNER: How much would it cost?

CARDOZA: One asks, could I get a full ride with a 3.0 GPA?

TURNER: The tour guide is quiet, so counselor Shatane Porter jumps in.

SHATANE PORTER: They're going to be nice. You know how I talk. A 3.0 is average at best when you're talking about getting full scholarships to most schools 'cause you're competing against the country, not just who's in your class.

CARDOZA: For some of the students, this is a difficult awakening.

TURNER: They realize they want to go to college but don't have the money to go without a scholarship.

CARDOZA: And they don't have the grades to get one.

TURNER: This moment, like so many over the year, is about the space between expectations and where these students are right now.

CARDOZA: And there's a lot of space.

Stefan says he had a great time at last night's show talking to Morehouse men.

STEFAN: They showed me who I should be in the future, so I was just mesmerized by that.

TURNER: Mesmerized. He's also visibly sad this morning. When some of the kings start throwing a football, Stefan hangs back.

STEFAN: I was thinking about my grades, how I want my grades to look this semester. Inside the fraternity, they are all scholars, so I can't go inside the fraternity with, like, F's.

CARDOZA: That's one reason that Ron Brown - they do these college trips now with ninth graders because it's not too late for Stefan.

TURNER: It's time to go. Everyone piles on the bus happy and tired.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: (Singing) Merrily, merrily, life is but a dream. Row, row your boat gently down the stream. Merrily, merrily, life is but a dream.

CARDOZA: And the moment they step off the bus...

TURNER: Spring break. And we're going to take a quick break, too. When we come back, the reckoning.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: When the students return from break, the sprint begins. Time is running out to improve grades and prepare them for the big standardized test they'll have to take in May.

TURNER: Several teachers tell us they're frustrated that students are spending so much school time doing non-academic things. It's not that they think those are a waste of time, not at all.

CARDOZA: They're just worried that the kings aren't learning what they need to learn in the classroom.

TURNER: And every minute a student spends in a circle or on a field trip is one minute less they have with a teacher.

CARDOZA: Remember, Ron Brown was founded on high standards.

TURNER: But now, in April, it's becoming clear many students won't pass if they're held to those standards.

GREENE: I don't feel that the way that we're doing school works.

CARDOZA: Math teacher, Shaka Greene, says the school is out of balance.

GREENE: Yes, we want them to be upstanding and courteous and kind and feel good about themselves. But I feel that we're doing that at the expense of holding them to high standards. And in a lot of ways, it feels like the bias of diminished expectations. But I said this in the meeting, it's worse because it's us doing it to us.

CARDOZA: Greene's not just talking about time spent in class.

TURNER: Teachers have just been told about a pair of district-wide policies that many feel undermine the school's expectations. One of them is about homework.

CARDOZA: What grade would you expect a student to receive for an assignment he doesn't do, not half-heartedly or late?

TURNER: We mean he simply doesn't turn it in.

CARDOZA: If you said zero credit, you're wrong. D.C. public schools and many other districts across the country now give students 50 percent credit for missing work.

TURNER: That's half credit for doing nothing. District leaders told us even one zero can be devastating to a student's grade...

CARDOZA: And can make it nearly impossible statistically to recover from just one or two missing assignments.

TURNER: Fifty percent is still a failing grade, the district says, but makes it easier for a student to catch up.

GUDGER: I hate it. And my students know I hate it.

CARDOZA: That's Schalette Gudger, the English teacher. As we heard last week, she's all for being flexible but says this 50 percent policy sends the wrong message.

GUDGER: Some students lean on that because they are so accustomed to what I call mediocrity. And I think it's a play into creating a generation of students, particularly in urban school systems, that are not prepared when they get to college or get to careers to be productive.

TURNER: Across the hall, world history teacher Travis Bouldin feels the same.

TRAVIS BOULDIN: That's not teaching my kids integrity. It's not teaching them hard work. It's not teaching them grit. It's not doing anything it's supposed to do. Low expectations are low expectations. I don't care how you cut it.

CARDOZA: Every teacher here disagrees with the policy even though they may understand the intent.

TURNER: And all this tension - it's just a warm up for a much bigger debate that erupts when teachers are told about a second district policy.

GUDGER: So students could actually fail three quarters and pass one quarter and pass any class.

CARDOZA: This is really controversial, so it's worth saying again.

TURNER: Yeah. This second district policy that's about to cause so much trouble at Ron Brown - it says a student can fail three-quarters out of four in, say, algebra and still pass. All he has to do is get a C or better in one quarter.

DAVID PINDER: I don't apologize for that. I mean, I think the goal is to get kids to the finish line. And if there are kids who are going to meet you there, we should find ways to do it.

CARDOZA: That's David Pinder with D.C. public schools. He's principal Ben Williams' boss. Pinder says this policy came out of feedback from teachers and school leaders.

PINDER: One of the things that DCPS has been trying to do is to make sure we have a grading policy that's fair and rigorous but that also gives kids multiple opportunities to get back on track.

TURNER: Multiple opportunities to get back on track. Because many of Ron Brown's teachers hadn't taught in district schools before, they didn't know about this policy. So it's explained to them in a Monday staff meeting in mid-May.

CARDOZA: Mr. Greene isn't there, but when he comes in the next day...

GREENE: I was greeted at my door by three coworkers who were - had essentially camped out waiting for me to get there and say, Greene, you're not going to believe this. I said, what? They said, you know everyone passes, right? And I said, what are you talking about?

Like, it was not in context. I really didn't know what they were talking. And he said, well, yeah, you know, students only have to pass one quarter, and they pass for the year. And so I laughed like a - not like a LOL, but like - it was a hearty laugh like, no. You're - that - you misheard. That can't be true.

CARDOZA: So later that day in another staff meeting, Greene tries to clarify the policy with the assistant principal.

GREENE: Are you being serious? Like, students only have to pass for 25 percent of the year? And she said, yup, that's policy. And I said that's bullshit.

CARDOZA: This is the first and only time either of us has ever heard Greene curse.

TURNER: And now he says he doesn't want to keep passing the buck. This meeting about the three-F's policy, he says, it's a turning point.

GREENE: In that moment, my decision was crystallized. I knew that I could not come back and participate in something that was so egregiously wrong. Like, it's just fundamentally wrong. And if it's wrong, it's wrong.

CARDOZA: At this point, Greene says, I'm not coming back next year.

TURNER: But what seems so wrong to Greene makes perfect sense to psychologist Charles Curtis.

CURTIS: A black male that drops out of high school is, at best, going to struggle check to check and more likely get incarcerated, hurt or hurt somebody. Worst case scenario - will be dead.

CARDOZA: Research shows that nearly 1 in 4 young black men who drop out of high school will be locked up by the time they're 24.

TURNER: And Curtis says, holding them back in ninth grade makes them much more likely to drop out.

CURTIS: There is like this indignant righteousness about what should be and what shouldn't be, and all that shit sounds great. But this is their life. Like, you talking about letting him fail. Like, what happens when he fails for real and he drops out and we could have prevented it?

CARDOZA: The only way to break that cycle, Curtis says, is to keep students in school even if that means giving them half credit for missing work and letting them pass classes they largely failed.

TURNER: And this isn't just a D.C. thing. School districts all over the country do this.

CARDOZA: At Ron Brown, Curtis says, progress will come, but you have to think of it as a long game. Principal Ben Williams agrees.

WILLIAMS: Don't judge me on one year when we're fundamentally trying to build our young men from the ground up, breaking down every bad habit, every poor experience and giving them a space where they can believe in themselves.

CARDOZA: Williams argues Greene is being impatient.

TURNER: But Shaka Greene says schools need to be less patient.

GREENE: I'm looking at the crisis that is affecting our children, specifically young black males every day, and it is a crisis. It is a state of war. It is a state of emergency. And if it's not being attacked like that, you're essentially putting Band-Aids on gunshot wounds. And I don't want to be a part of that.

TURNER: Teachers at Ron Brown share Greene's frustration, even if they're not willing to resign over it.

JABARI SELLARS: He stands by his principles.

CARDOZA: That's English teacher Jabari Sellars.

SELLARS: He loves these boys so much to not allow his classroom to be this charade.

TURNER: The school's other English teacher, Schalette Gudger, says she understands how vulnerable these young black men are.

GUDGER: However, at the same time, it's like, so if we pass him through, what can he do with his life? What have we prepared him for?

CARDOZA: Many teachers say this moment - this is when the lofty ideals of Ron Brown...

TURNER: For many, the reason they came here in the first place.

CARDOZA: ...Crash headlong into reality. Remember, teachers and school leaders used one word over and over again at the start of the year.

GUDGER: You have to speak greatness into young people.

CURTIS: We need to be about greatness, period, day in, day out.

KAYA HENDERSON: I expect greatness.

TURNER: That's Gudger, Curtis and former head of D.C. Public Schools, Kaya Henderson. But now, in May, teachers tell us greatness is not letting students fail for three quarters or giving them half credit for work they didn't do.

ERRIN SMITH: It's such a low standard. I have kids on my caseload that didn't do anything, and I pushed.

TURNER: Teacher Errin Smith.

SMITH: They're going to go in the 10th grade without knowing - knowing anything or having any real skills. I came in here with such high hopes that we were changing the narrative in all areas. But academically, we're doing the same thing that all the rest of the schools do in the district. It can be disheartening.

CARDOZA: At the same time, Smith says he knows it's a district-wide policy so every other school will be passing similar students.

TURNER: Teachers describe feeling trapped. They know the system was built on good intentions but say it's now part of the problem.

CARDOZA: For the next week, after Mr. Greene declares the policy bullshit and says he's not coming back, tension mounts with faculty and staff divided.

TURNER: Then in late May, the water boils.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: Chapter 5 - Irreconcilable Differences.

It's a Wednesday afternoon. I'm sitting in a meeting with Principal Williams, Charles Curtis and Patricia Odom of the CARE team.

TURNER: Williams calls Greene into the office.

CARDOZA: Before he gets there, I'm told I can't record what's about to happen, but I can stay. The meeting was intense with a lot of anger directed at Greene, who stayed calm and said very little.

TURNER: So what we've done is try to recreate the meeting with interviews, even if we can't capture the anger or frustration. And it starts with Williams, Curtis and Odom telling Greene he's a fake and a fraud.

CARDOZA: They say, if you're willing to leave over this policy, then you must never have believed in the school's mission.

GUDGER: You were here for the image. Who wouldn't want to be a part of changing the narrative of the way people in D.C. view our young men? So I think it sounded good because that's how you operate. You put up facades. And that's fine. I just think it's damaging to kids.

GREENE: Wow. Really? That's that's really what you think? Like, you've seen me come early. You've seen me leave late. You've seen me give everything that I have. And because I'm making a decision that you don't personally agree with, you reveal this idea that you have of me.

CARDOZA: After an hour or so, Odom storms out.

TURNER: Principal Williams and Curtis at times seemed genuinely confused and hurt by Greene's decision to leave. They ask, is it for more money somewhere else?

CARDOZA: Greene says no. He has nothing lined up and four children. This is purely about principle.

TURNER: The meeting rages on. Both sides playing out a fight that has roiled teachers' lounges and principals' offices across the country. On one side, the case for high standards and the belief that lowering them is a betrayal of students who are constantly told you're not good enough.

CARDOZA: And on the other side, the fear that high standards at any cost will push at-risk students out of school. The fact is both sides are right.

TURNER: The men reach an impasse. And Charles Curtis leaves. But Greene and Williams keep debating.

CARDOZA: Repeatedly, Williams tells him you're doing to these boys exactly what every other man in their lives has done - abandoning them.

WILLIAMS: They trust us. They believe in us. They care for us. And I have to remember that I was that kid at one time or another and how much I was hurt when I was abandoned.

And I can't, with any good conscience, allow myself to do that to a child, to these young men or allow somebody else to make a conscious decision to walk out without, again, putting it in front of them and telling them, you know, you're some shit if you do this.

GREENE: To use this almost like a guilt trip - like, I'm guilting (ph) you into - I'm trying to make you feel bad for making this decision. You're abandoning the children. And I could have said in the moment, well, you abandoned them first with this bullshit policy.

TURNER: The meeting winds down. Greene says he's still not coming back next year. Both men are exhausted.

CARDOZA: It was really hard to watch these two passionate, dedicated educators who've worked their hearts out to build a school from scratch and who loved the students desperately. But they disagree so fundamentally that common ground just wasn't enough.

TURNER: Despite the bitterness of the meeting, though, they shake hands and hug, leaving the building heading in different directions.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Chapter 6 - The Long Goodbye.

Over the last few weeks of school, the teachers and staff carry on business as usual.

CARDOZA: The students take those big standardized tests we've mentioned earlier. Most of them are oblivious to the turmoil with Mr. Greene - that is, until a few days before school ends, he tells his classes.

GREENE: This is my last day. And I definitely want to reiterate that I'm not leaving because of anything that you all did. I'm not coming back next year.

CARDOZA: The year is basically over at this point. Greene packs his chess trophies into boxes, writes his personal information on the board and tells the kings, please, keep in touch.

TURNER: Word gets out. And students begin trickling into his room from all over the building in disbelief. One of them, Jayden (ph), hugs Greene and says what many say this afternoon.

JAYDEN: It's going to be hard because Mr. Greene leaving, and he spoke the truth. I don't know. I'm not no soft person, so I'm not going to say I'm all about to tear up and all that. But I don't know right now. It's just - it's hard because Mr. Greene was cool. Everybody looked up to him as a thing.

CARDOZA: One last student comes in to say goodbye and find out how he did on a recent test.

TURNER: Not well, it turns out. This student often showed up late, cut jokes and didn't study.

CARDOZA: Greene tells him he scored below a third grader.

GREENE: You have to be better than this. You're going to have children one day, sir. How are you going to feed them? Where are you going to live? You going to stay in mom and them house in the basement sleeping on the couch writing your name on the orange juice? Mama, don't drink my stuff. Is that your life? With scores like this, what options will you have?

CARDOZA: Right now, Greene says, you still have choices. In three or four years, you won't.

TURNER: And with that, Shaka Greene, the most beloved teacher at Ron Brown, leaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: As sad as many kings are about Mr. Greene's departure, they're still 15-year-old boys. School's almost out.

TURNER: Classes are basically over, and the kings were excited.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: (Laughter).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: Like it's your last time.

TURNER: There's lots of laughing and fun events.

CARDOZA: There's an end-of-year picnic.

TURNER: And a student-teacher basketball game with Principal Williams calling the shots.

WILLIAMS: Number three, Patricia no-handle Odom.

TURNER: The kings also volunteer at a neighborhood elementary school handing out cotton candy.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I want a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: Give that to my man (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: I want a lot.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: I got you. I got you.

TURNER: And one group of students misses it all because they're on a school trip to Peru.

CARDOZA: During one of the last community circles, Principal Williams takes the mic to say thank you to the kings.

WILLIAMS: I love each and every one of you. You guys have changed my life tremendously and don't - you know, don't be embarrassed when I pull you to the side for a hug or tell you I love you because I mean it.

(APPLAUSE)

CARDOZA: Then it's the students' turn.

DAHI: I had just came from summer school because I had failed eighth grade, and I had to make it up.

CARDOZA: That's Dahi, the king we met earlier in Atlanta. He tells the circle he remembers how Principal Williams welcomed him to Ron Brown even though he'd been a terrible student.

DAHI: Ever since that day, I've been trying my hardest to get to where I am now. And I want to thank everybody, not just Dr. Williams because everybody has helped push me into the man that I want to be.

(APPLAUSE)

TURNER: The last day arrives, June 14. After lunch, when it's time to go, the CARE team, Principal Williams and a few teachers meet the students at the front doors and walk them outside. There, the team breaks into song.

UNIDENTIFIED TEACHERS: (Singing) I'm still holding on.

CARDOZA: They're singing "I'm Still Holding On" because these students, many of whom showed up in August desperate to be anywhere but here, now refuse to leave.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: And they still won't leave. And they still won't leave.

CARDOZA: Many of the young men begin play wrestling with the CARE team and Williams.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Screaming).

CARDOZA: Finally, the students get the message. They say bye to the staff. See you next year.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TURNER: Chapter 7 - What To Make Of It All.

Year one at Ron Brown is over. Principal Williams has already begun interviewing candidates to replace Mr. Greene.

CARDOZA: It's not just Greene. Roughly half the teachers are leaving. Mr. Lawrence, Greene's math partner, is moving with his girlfriend to Florida.

TURNER: Mr. Sellars, one of the two English teachers, has been accepted into a master's program at Harvard.

CARDOZA: The biology teacher won't be coming back either, nor will the music teacher.

TURNER: As for the district-wide grading policies that created so much controversy, they will be followed. Every student is allowed to move on to the 10th grade.

MERAJI: All right, we're back in studio with Kavitha and Cory. And before we go, and I just would like to say Dahi for president.

(LAUGHTER)

MERAJI: Right?

DEMBY: He is great.

MERAJI: I love that kid.

DEMBY: He is the best.

MERAJI: But, you know, now is the time for a little debrief with you both. How did the school do in its first year?

CARDOZA: Well, Shereen, it kind of depends on who you ask. So let's start with the students and what they say they've learned.

TREMAINE: It teaches young boys how to be a man. Even if they don't have a father figure, they will act like your father. They'll teach you how to be a man.

ZION: Sometimes you're not always right. And it's OK to be in the wrong as long as you acknowledge it and as long as you take responsibility for what you did.

MIKE: Being blunt - just, yo, you did this to me. This is how I feel. And I want us to get over this. Our whole goal in circles is to make sure that somebody gets over a conflict or tension - set all that aside. We need to help each other.

CARDOZA: That's three of the many kings we talked with - Tremaine (ph), Zion (ph) and Mike (ph). Notice the thing they all talked about is the social-emotional stuff.

MERAJI: Right.

CARDOZA: Many of them benefited.

DEMBY: But, OK, what about the less squishy stuff - right? - the stuff that we can measure, the quantifiable stuff?

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, there's - when you start talking about traditional school measures, one of the things that most folks in education start with is attendance...

DEMBY: OK.

TURNER: ...Because it's a really good sign of whether or not students actually wanted to be there. So you look at Ron Brown, and we know that on average, over the course of last year, roughly 80 percent of students showed up on any given day.

DEMBY: Is that good?

TURNER: So that's right around the district average, maybe a little bit better. But when you compare Ron Brown to other high schools nearby, it's a lot better. And we looked up several schools. They're all in the low 60s.

MERAJI: What about suspensions? We talked a lot about Ron Brown's approach - radical approach to suspensions, which was not suspending kids.

CARDOZA: So Ron Brown is a small school. But it suspended just five students all year. That's pretty good.

DEMBY: OK. So what kind of things would you get suspended for at Ron Brown? And what was the conversation like among the faculty about whether to suspend kids because, obviously, that was - it's like anathema to their mission.

CARDOZA: Right. So the suspensions were for really serious offenses, right? One was a teacher getting punched. One student tries to bring a knife to school, two bring Xanax to class and take it. So the teachers all agree, like, students shouldn't be kicked out for things like cursing or talking back. But there was little to no pushback from staff about these suspensions.

DEMBY: Oh, got you, OK.

MERAJI: All right, everybody, we talked about attendance and suspensions. But let's talk about the elephant in the room which is academics. As we've said, a majority of the students at Ron Brown - they arrived reading and doing math at or below a fifth grade level. I want to know how they finished.

TURNER: So let's start with growth. The school says students improved on average in both English and math by about a year, maybe a little bit more than that in math. These students on average came in around the fifth grade. But as we heard in week two, a lot of these students are reading and or doing math at the first or second grade level.

When you consider that they're 14 and 15 years old, like, they're making tiny increments of growth by the time they get to Ron Brown. So by that scale, a year's worth of growth - man, that's great.

DEMBY: Dramatic, right?

CARDOZA: Right because they've kind of never made one whole year's growth before, probably, in a year.

TURNER: Yeah. That's pretty good, especially when you consider the really long hours we saw the teachers put in. That said, you know, the district really wanted them to make two years of growth so that they can catch up. That didn't happen.

CARDOZA: And I think several teachers would say that students could have done much better if they had worked harder and getting more class time would have helped.

DEMBY: So you guys mentioned more than once in this story that the students had to take these standardized tests, right? How did the kings do on those tests?

CARDOZA: Well, the school isn't going to be judged on those scores this year - we should say that up front - because it's a new school, even though in normal circumstances, scores can get a teacher fired or a principal fired. And on the flip side, they can get huge bonuses. So this year at Ron Brown, 11 percent of freshmen tested on grade level reading. So remember since we're talking about a student body of around a hundred students, that 11 percent...

DEMBY: Eleven kids.

CARDOZA: Yes.

TURNER: It's roughly 11 - 11 students on grade level in reading. And then in math, it was 2 percent of students on grade level so, again, roughly two students.

DEMBY: How does that compare to the district - more broadly?

CARDOZA: Well below the district average.

DEMBY: Wow.

MERAJI: Now, I know people have a lot of feelings about standardized test scores and what they measure. And - but that still sounds really dismal, and I don't know.

CARDOZA: It is low. I think the big picture - the way Cory and I understood it, Shereen, was that, honestly, covering a school like Ron Brown was a reminder to us that we still don't agree as a society about what exactly a school is for. So lots of people say schools are just for teaching academics - right? - math, reading, science. So, yes, then the scores are awful.

But increasingly, I think people are realizing you can't do that. You can't teach if you don't also address the challenges students bring with them.

DEMBY: Right, like the legacy of racism and generational poverty and learning gaps that people bring into, like, kindergarten with them.

TURNER: Absolutely. And the fact is we're asking schools to do a lot. And Ron Brown is trying to do it all.

DEMBY: And I guess they're trying to do it all with a school that now is twice as big because they have - those freshmen are now sophomores, and they have a new freshman class.

TURNER: A brand new freshmen class.

CARDOZA: So we went back to see what the students were doing this year.

TURNER: And we want to leave people with just a little bit of what we heard.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARDOZA: Epilogue - it's Monday, August 21, 2017, the first day of the second year at Ron Brown College Prep High School.

TURNER: Many of the new freshmen are clearly anxious. They stand alone, shake hands stiffly. But the 10th graders?

RASHAWN: I'm just ready to get started at noon. I'm feeling good, you feel me? I'm ready to get honor roll - honor roll, all four.

CARDOZA: That's Rashawn. He's the king who told us early on...

RASHAWN: I didn't really go to school.

CARDOZA: What do you mean?

RASHAWN: I was either suspended or I skipped school.

CARDOZA: Not only is Rashawn back and focused on making honor roll, he's also been picked to join a new student CARE team.

TURNER: Inside, we run into Stefan. And it's clear those feelings he had at Morehouse - they've stuck with him.

STEFAN: Last year, I ain't had a GPA that I wanted. But this year, like, I'm striving more, and I'm pushing myself. And I know I'm going to push myself every single quarter.

CARDOZA: Dahi's also here.

DAHI: I've been reading a lot more this summer. I think it's better that I expand, you know, my knowledge on reading and everything since I'm now in AP.

CARDOZA: Dahi signed up for the Advanced Placement history class.

TURNER: Also back is Dee (ph), the student who was shot in October and sat in a circle with his mother. He says he's happy to be back and plans to get better grades this year.

CARDOZA: In fact, more than 90 percent of the students chose to return this year. Among those who didn't come back is Amaru (ph), who celebrated his 17th birthday with the CARE team.

TURNER: His grandmother told us she decided to enroll him in a vocational program. For Charles Curtis and the rest of the team, it's disappointing.

CARDOZA: But it's also a good reminder. They can't hold on to everyone.

CURTIS: I feel like my feet are more planted in the work. And so it's almost like a cold wind blowing. Like, I'm not gonna fall over, but shit's cold though, you know?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: 2021, you should grab your ties. Go ahead and put it on.

TURNER: To mark the new school year, everyone gathers in the old community circle space. The new sophomore's greet the freshmen by giving them their new purple and gold ties and then help tie them.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: If you don't have a tie, raise your hand. I see you. I need four over here.

CARDOZA: And the year officially begins as the last one did with Principal Ben Williams leading the school in a call and response using the school's motto.

WILLIAMS: Faculty and returning students, we are...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: All in.

WILLIAMS: I don't hear you. I don't believe you. I don't believe it. We are...

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: All in.

CARDOZA: For Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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

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

MERAJI: And a shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. Be easy.

MERAJI: Peace.

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