Reflections On A Year At Ron Brown High We spent the past three episodes looking at the first year of a high school for black boys in Washington, D.C. Now, we're taking a look back on our reporting. What does it mean for a school like Ron Brown to exist — and what does that say about our society?
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Reflections On A Year At Ron Brown High

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Reflections On A Year At Ron Brown High

Reflections On A Year At Ron Brown High

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GENE DEMBY, HOST:

What's good, y'all? You're listening to the CODE SWITCH podcast. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is traveling this week. So as you know, for the past few weeks, we've been looking at the very first year of the very first freshman class at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, which is here in Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

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

MURIEL BOWSER: Welcome to the Ron Brown College Preparatory High School.

WILLIAMS: You are here to change the narrative.

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

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 momma's funeral.

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

SCHALETTE GUDGER: I expect greatness.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

CURTIS: Greatness, period, day in, day out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

WILLIAMS: Now, young men, I'm 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.

DEMBY: Ron Brown is an all-boys school. It's a school aimed specifically at teaching young men of color. But functionally, that means it's almost all black boys. They're the students that struggle the most in the schools here in D.C., and they struggle the most in schools nationally. Ron Brown is built on a restorative justice model, which means its founders believe in trying to understand why a student might be acting out in class and then try to get him to repair the damage done by his behavior.

So that's a lot of talking with teenagers, which, as you might imagine, requires a lot of work for everybody involved at the school. And the leadership is adamant that kids should not be suspended. And Ron Brown is also an anomaly because almost all the teachers and staff there are black men, which never happens. As you heard, about 2 percent of the teachers in the whole country - 2 percent - are black men.

But despite the really noble intentions of the people who founded this school, the first year underscored just how big so many of these big societal problems that Ron Brown is trying to tackle are. On this episode, we want to do some debriefing on the very ambitious reporting you've heard here on the podcast on the last few weeks. So we've invited back Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team and Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week to the studio to talk some of this out with us. They both spent a year reporting on this story at Ron Brown. And y'all listeners had a lot of questions and a lot of feelings about this story, and so did we.

So Cory, Kavitha, welcome back.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Thanks, Gene.

KAVITHA CARDOZA: Thanks for having us.

DEMBY: Some of the big questions I had were about socioeconomics at Ron Brown. Most of the kids at Ron Brown were from low-income households, right? But there were a handful of students there who were decidedly not poor. One of the kids had a parent who was a member of Congress - Cory, you told me.

And not surprisingly, those were the kids who performed the best on the standardized tests that all the kids at Ron Brown had to take. But some of those parents - some of the upper-income parents - had issues with Ron Brown. Here's actually tape of a mother who was explaining why she was taking her son out.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

ALICIA: I think that restorative justice works for some kids. Other kids, it's not going to work for. It would've worked for my child, but other kids from a different environment, it's not going to work for them. And there's some kids that are used to certain things, how they survive in their community. That's not where my son is from. He can't - he doesn't understand that, really. And I feel safer him being closer to home and with a group that's more like him. That's all.

TURNER: Had something happened?

ALICIA: I really - I mean, I don't want to talk bad about the school because I think the concept is good. The teachers are good. The curriculum is good. It's just that, to be honest - how do I say it without sounding...

TURNER: I want you to say it exactly the way you feel.

ALICIA: Like, I'm not low income, so there's different skill sets you need in your environment. So this environment might be good for those kids. But I'm more about academics. I'm a very involved parent. And I just feel, this is not where he needs to be.

DEMBY: Cory and Kavitha, like, how - from your reporting, from when you guys were there - how did that gulf in income between those kids and the other kids at the school play out, like, in the classroom?

TURNER: I was actually surprised by how little we saw the differences manifest in sort of daily interactions between students. And part of that could be because the school was really built around hiding that inequity as best as possible. So they had uniforms. The school served not one, not two but three free meals a day, and they're free to every student. So, you know, there's just no money changing hands. It's - the inequity was largely subtext. And because we knew, generally, who the more affluent students were and could see who they were interacting with on a daily basis, there didn't seem to be a lot of clicking, a lot of subgrouping.

DEMBY: So for these upper-income parents, what was it about Ron Brown that attracted them to the school?

CARDOZA: It was a lot of different things. So one family told us his son had been in a private Catholic school for years and said the academic foundation at - without paying the private tuition - was definitely - another parent said she really loved the idea of going on all these trips and all this exposure, and that was wonderful.

And she said, even though the school wasn't as academically rigorous as she wanted, she said that it - she really wanted her son to be around black role models. And I would say that beyond all the, like, kind of, individual reasons, I think there was a collective sense that something different was happening at the school, and parents wanted to be part of it.

DEMBY: So Ron Brown, obviously, is not that - socioeconomically, is not terribly diverse, right? It's mostly low-income...

TURNER: No, I mean...

DEMBY: ...With a pocket of upper-middle-class kids, and - right?

TURNER: Oh, yeah. I mean, the data points we've used are - almost half come from families that qualify for food stamps. So that's a very real level of poverty. And we know that the vast majority are considered low-income.

DEMBY: So you guys are ed folks. You're ed reporters. Can you sort of break down how much socioeconomic diversity matters in how students perform and whether or not having a critical mass of middle-class or upper-middle-class kids moves the needle in one direction or the other?

TURNER: Yeah. There's a lot of good and interesting research on the importance of socioeconomic integration - why it matters, what sort of effect it has on students. And I actually just - I want to quote from an interview we did on the NPR Ed Team last year. It was an online interview that one of my colleagues, Anya Kamenetz, did with Richard Kahlenberg, who's a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. They've done a lot of good work on socioeconomic integration.

And Kahlenberg said this. "Kids who have big dreams, are expecting to go on to college, are less likely to cause disruption, cut classes and are more likely to be academically engaged. And on average, those peers are found more often in economically-mixed than in high-poverty schools. It's also an advantage to be in a classroom where your peers are high-achieving. For example, children of professionals have bigger vocabularies on average than low-income students, and that will rub off.

As for the parents - not attaching any blame - but middle-class parents are more likely to be PTA members and volunteer in class. And that parental involvement benefits every child in a school. And finally, the teachers deemed more effective are more likely to be found in economically-mixed schools. That has to do with those first two factors. It's easier to teach in a school with fewer discipline issues and with parents who are there to help out," end quote. So, you know, it's a whole suite of issues. The real question is not, do students benefit? But how can we better integrate our schools along these lines?

DEMBY: Right. And I guess when you're thinking about Ron Brown, if you had a critical mass of middle-class kids or upper-middle-class kids, maybe you are then crowding out some of the kids who you want this school to attract - right? - some of the kids who are more marginalized, right? I mean, you wouldn't want half of a class of 100 students to be kids who are well-off, necessarily, right?

TURNER: It's a give-or-take. One of the things Kahlenberg says in this interview is that, you know, the hard work for many of our big-city districts that aren't integrated and that have really concentrated poverty in their schools is finding ways - generally using magnet schools or selective schools - to entice these more affluent parents back into the system that they've basically abandoned. And you could argue that Ron Brown is meant to be one of those schools. It is a lottery school for a reason.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: And we are back. Alright, so we have some questions on gender. Shereen's not here. She's on a plane right now. But she's been wondering this from the very beginning when we first started talking about this project. Black girls, by all metrics, are vulnerable, too.

CARDOZA: Absolutely, absolutely. We're not going to burry you with numbers, but in D.C., in terms of graduation rates, black boys fared the worst, followed by Hispanic boys and then black girls. In terms of suspensions, black boys, again, fare the worst, followed by black girls. Girls of color also deal with gender violence. They deal with family obligations. You know, they are more likely to look after parents or little siblings, so they do have a lot of challenges. We should say that D.C. has a charter school...

DEMBY: OK.

CARDOZA: ...That is just for girls, and it's located in Anacostia. But again, charter schools draw from all over the city. You have to apply. It's called Excel Academy Public Charter School, and it serves about 700 students.

DEMBY: So we've been talking about how important it is and consequential it is for people to have teachers who look like them - right? - because teachers of color are more often empathetic. They're more likely to recommend black boys to AP classes and things like that. But I guess I was wondering what the research tells us about how important it was that the student body looked like them. Like, what do we know about the educational merits of single-sex schools like Ron Brown?

CARDOZA: So before we jump in with the merits of single-sex, I wanted to double down on something you said which was so important. Johns Hopkins has come out with great research that shows, if you have a teacher of color who looks like you in the third, fourth or fifth grade, you're 40 percent less likely to drop out of school, and you're much more likely to consider college as an option. So that's huge. This...

TURNER: And that's focusing specifically on low-income black boys.

DEMBY: Do single-sex schools work? I mean...

TURNER: I had a really good chat a while ago when we first started reporting on this project with Erin Pahlke, who is an assistant professor of psychology at Whitman College. I called her up because she was part of a team that did a really big meta-analysis a couple years ago of single-sex school research. So we're talking about 184 studies of roughly 1.6 million kids across 21 different countries because obviously single-sex schools is not specific to the U.S.

DEMBY: Sure.

TURNER: And she told me, there is not a difference between the outcomes from single-sex schools to coed schools. And that's true across lots of different measures, from performance in science, on verbal, general achievement, students' attitudes towards things like math or science. If you look at the high-quality studies, there just isn't a consistent difference.

DEMBY: Is the idea at Ron Brown that, OK, we're going to take this marginalized population, this population that's really struggling, and put them in a place because they have specific challenges - is less about the merits - the pedagogical merits of teaching boys in a all-boys classroom?

TURNER: There's just not good research to suggest that this sort of single-sex environment is a panacea. It's not necessarily bad. I mean, there's not good evidence that says, oh, beware. I think the challenge specifically with Ron Brown, though - if they start seeing gains, real improvement, it'll be practically impossible to disentangle...

DEMBY: ...Which one of these things is the reason.

TURNER: ...The factors at Ron Brown because it's not just, it's a single sex school, it's they - you know, they have a CARE Team of six or seven non-academic staff members who focus specifically on social-emotional growth, you know? It's - they take college trips every month - you know, three square meals a day. I mean, like, there are lots of things that made this school stand out. And so again, if they do start seeing gains, it's going to be really hard to unpack what worked.

DEMBY: So kings is the preferred term the school uses for its boys. The faculty call their students kings. So kings is obviously designed to be really affirmative - right? - and uplifting. It also is - you can't really get around the fact that it is really patriarchal, right? It is steeped in some very weird ideas about gender and power. And this is a all-boy school. And I'm just curious as to, like, why kings? Why is that the term they decided on?

CARDOZA: Let's start, maybe, by hearing what former Chancellor of DCPS Kaya Henderson said about the term king.

HENDERSON: Every single day when I was a little girl, before we left the house, my grandmother would tell me, do you know you are the smartest little girl in the world? You could be the president of the United States one day - right? - every day. And so I grew up really thinking that like, you know, I was the best thing since sliced bread. I was supposed to get 100 on tests. I was - because I might be the president of the United States. It didn't matter that there'd never been a black one, never been a woman. Like, it was going to be mine because she spoke that into me.

When you call people kings - right? - it calls them to a different level of behavior and leadership. When you tell kids that they are phenomenal and great - and these kids are getting a steady diet of not that, right? So I think, you know, the educators that we selected understand the challenges that our kids are facing, and everything that they do is deliberately designed to counteract that and to uplift.

CARDOZA: Gene, I mean, we totally hear you because it was odd for us as well when we first started going. You know, I would normally say kids, and it was like, oh, kings. And you could hear the teachers too - didn't you, Cory - I mean, correct themselves, stop and say, kids, oh, no, I mean kings. Like, that was very much the first month, I would say.

I think some of it - when you say young man - some of it was to give them this idea, to plant those seeds that they have a future. There is a long-term plan for them, while a lot of them because of their age or because of what they've seen around them, might think of very short term.

DEMBY: Yeah, just, you know, there are so few places in which black boys get to be boys and get to be kids, right?

TURNER: Yeah, absolutely.

CARDOZA: Oh, I will say, they did use the term - so they call them kings, but Gene, I will say they treated them like boys. There were hugs. They were carrying them upside down. They were wiping away tears. They were, you know, hugging them. There was a lot of nurturing going on.

DEMBY: I'm also curious about what life was like, from what you guys saw, for the women in that space or the people who were non-gender-conforming who were either teachers at Ron Brown or worked in the building. Like, what is it like to be in a space that is so male and has a very specific idea about masculinity that it is projecting?

CARDOZA: There were a few women at Ron Brown. And most of them, unfortunately, experience some level of sexism for the - from the students, and it's hard to...

DEMBY: From the students.

CARDOZA: From the students. It's hard to know how kind of pervasive it was, whether it was a handful of students or from many students. But we heard this from the biology teacher Cheryl Brown (ph).

CHERYL BROWN: This is a very sexist environment. Every woman that I've encountered in this school has encountered some sort of slant or slur on a daily basis by the students here.

CARDOZA: We had interviews with, like, all the staff, and we looked at the disciplinary records, and there were multiple examples of sexist behavior. So female teachers were called bitches in the hallway or in class. One student slipped a suggestive - sexually suggestive note to a teacher. Another one touched a teacher on her bottom.

TURNER: He got suspended.

CARDOZA: That was one of the few rare suspensions.

TURNER: Yeah, I mean, I'll add, I think one of the interesting things about the way Ron Brown operates is, they address this in a really interesting and relatively novel way, I mean, through restorative justice. So the student who slipped the sexually suggestive note to a teacher had to circle up with that teacher. And I believe his mother was also included in the circle.

DEMBY: Wow.

TURNER: And the teacher got to choose his restorative practice, the thing he had to do to repair the harm. So they're really thoughtful about the responses to this sexism as it manifested in the classroom.

DEMBY: So full disclosure here - I am a former young black boy. Some of the stuff about Ron Brown's approach to masculinity and the way they discussed it really stuck in my craw because it just reminded me of all these lectures I got growing up, being on the receiving end of all of these talking-tos from older black men that sounded a lot like respectability politics.

And we hear in your reporting that the kids at Ron Brown can't dap each other up during the day. They're requiring the boys wear ties. That tie-tying thing is a trope in so much education reporting and just in so many schools that are, like, doing intensive mentoring of black boys, you know? We want to teach them how to tie ties because they ain't got no daddies - that thing.

And what they want to do, it seems, is to assimilate these boys into dominant culture, and they seem to be sending this message, whether they intend to or not, that there's an acceptable culture that you're supposed to belong to. So I'm just curious about how the faculty felt about that messaging and this messaging about, like, what a successful - I'm doing air quotes here.

TURNER: Well, we talked to every member of the staff and faculty about this at one point or another over the course of the year, and several of the men there explained it to me. Like, it was less about assimilation and more about aspiration. They wanted these young men to think of themselves as potential professionals. And the tie was just the currency of being a professional. You know, that was the way it was explained to us.

CARDOZA: I will say, the boys kind of - they grumbled in the beginning about the uniform, but this year, they had kind of bought into, we want to look like we're going places. You heard that from the kids.

DEMBY: Yeah, I know I just...

TURNER: I think I still see your antenna twitching, Gene.

DEMBY: I mean, just thinking about all the lectures I got about sagging pants and the way that there's all these anxieties around the way young black men present themselves - and I think there's a way in which these conversations around, like, sartorial decisions tend to be a little bit simplistic. Like, oh, well, if you were wearing clothes this way, if you're addressing this way, then you don't want these things, or that you want to...

TURNER: If you wear a tie, you're set.

DEMBY: Right. And if you have sagging pants, then you're not. You know what I mean? And I understand that what Ron Brown is trying to do is, like, present an alternative, like, way of being in the world on a day-to-day basis. But I also feel like there is something very, very, very prohibitive about this, like, idea of adulthood that they're presenting.

TURNER: I mean, I'll just add one thing to this conversation - that the uniforms, interestingly, became a real sticking point for several members of the faculty - especially Mr. Greene, the algebra teacher - as the year went on because the uniforms on many of the students - it wasn't specific to a handful, it was many of them - got pretty ragged over the course of the year. And I know Mr. Greene really made it a point in the hallways, in the classroom and even in circle, once or twice, to say, like, you need to care about how you look. You need to respect yourself. That's what he would say.

This is the same teacher who gave us that line in Episode 2 I think it was about how, you know, he was pretending to be, well, now I'm a Google executive, and I only want the best of the best. Like, I want these students, every single one of them, to be able to, you know, compete for a job at Google if that's what they want. And his point to them, like, religiously, was, you got to dress the part.

CARDOZA: The irony is, probably the one sector in which you don't have to wear a suit if you're an executive is Google.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: But I just, you know...

TURNER: Which may prove Gene's point.

DEMBY: And it - and this is why - going back to the idea of respectability politics, like, there are plenty of black men who are wearing suit and ties, and they're pulled over by the police, right? And I wish people could, like, sort of talk about that more, honestly. Like, the fact that you're wearing a suit and tie does not - it doesn't obviate all the stuff that goes in the word, all the gravity, all the drag that is - that, like, happens to black boys. And it's prescriptive about, you know, what, like, the right kind of culture is.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: So there's this pointed comment that we got from a listener that I wanted to hear from you two about. It starts, quote, "So CODE SWITCH starts the podcast with, can a school like Ron Brown work, when they should have started with, why do we need a school like Ron Brown in the first place, and will this actually change life for the average young black man in D.C.?" - end quote.

And so the way I understood this comment was to be about - like, talking about the drag - right? - the gravity that is exerted upon people by racism, right? And Ron Brown, as you guys have said before, is, like - is in the business of trying to mitigate the effects of, you know, generational poverty, and all these other things and residential segregation - all these things that are manifestations of racism in America.

TURNER: Absolutely.

DEMBY: We argue about this all the time - like, how much we need to, like, set that up in the story because it's gravity, right? It's, like - it's just - it's a force with which we must all reckon, but there's sometimes value in explicating the fact that gravity is there. So I'm curious as to what you guys make of a comment like that.

TURNER: This is the central tension for us every day as we do our jobs as education reporters because so much about our education system today is about mitigating the effects - the multigenerational effects of slavery, and institutional racism and, you know, the profound, like, wealth gap and poverty that passes on from parent to child and back again. You know, we see this at Ron Brown. We see this in so many schools that we cover.

And, you know, it goes back to the conversation we had at the end of the last episode. Like, what are schools for? You know, one school is not going to end racism in America, and it can't even try. It can only attack the symptoms. It can only, you know, give students the academic tools they need to hopefully make it through college, as well as the social and emotional tools they'll need to survive not only college, but to do well into life.

DEMBY: I mean it feels like - to some extent like we've - schools are the mechanism by which we decided that we're going to fix racism. And that's - historically, that's been the case, right? I mean, there's a reason you have the Little Rock Nine. There's a reason you have Brown v. Board, right? There's this idea that schools will be the avenue by which we address these social disparities - disparities is too passive - but by which we will address these violences.

TURNER: You use the word decide, though. I'm not even sure it's been - like, for me, it's kind of by default. Like, our schools have become our social safety net. We just put everything on our schools, all the stuff that we don't want to grapple with as a society - you know, all of the inequities and the manifestations of those inequities. Year after year, generation after generation, we just chuck them off onto our schools.

CARDOZA: I agree. And I think teachers and staff and educators, because of who they are, they see children before them, and they try and do what needs to be done. But I don't think we've decided because if we had, we would be funding at proper levels. We would have dealt with, you know, segregated schools. Like, we've not dealt with any of that. We have, as Cory said, shoved it onto the schools to deal with it as best they can.

DEMBY: Oh, I'm not saying we've - like, we've decided with any sort of conviction. I mean, to your point about default, it's been a very passive choice in a lot of ways, right? I mean...

TURNER: I mean, I think Brown v. Board is about as close as we get to real, like, codified-in-the-policy conviction that this is how we should grapple with these issues. But even our will to make Brown v. Board real and lasting fell apart.

DEMBY: Almost immediately, yeah.

CARDOZA: I used to do a series when I was a public radio reporter every year, and it was called Beating the Odds. And it was, like - I would highlight students who have, like, really faced severe challenges and do - and are doing fabulously, right? They've gone to college on a full-ride scholarship. And I remember talking about this once, and someone in the audience said, you know, why are we talking about beating the odds when it comes to these children? We should be talking about changing the odds for them.

And so that's the way I saw Ron Brown. Like, I felt, if we were changing the odds - so it can't just be one or two students who go to college or who to - or who succeed. If we're changing the odds where a lot of these kids are actually seeing their life path - like, a different path available, then I feel like, yeah, the school has been successful. I mean, they can't take on the world. They are taking on a hundred kids at a time. And then my hope is that there are ideas and things that we've - they've learned along the way that can be transferred and scaled up and hopefully inform other schools.

DEMBY: In a lot of ways, the odds are the story, right? I mean - and Ron Brown is trying to - I guess like you said, like, change the calculus a little bit in a very, very finite, constrained space, right? But it sits in this world where the odds are what the odds are.

TURNER: Yeah, absolutely.

DEMBY: I mean, obviously, I want these kids to win, right? They're swimming upstream against all sorts of forces, right? The thing is, like, those forces are things that we could do something about. I mean we - the societal we.

TURNER: We as a country - I mean, let's be honest. Like, we need to talk about these things at a much higher level than at the level of a school district.

CARDOZA: Or a school.

DEMBY: Or a school.

TURNER: Or a school - absolutely.

DEMBY: Obviously, there's a lot here, and we've only just started to scratch the surface of all of the stuff that this story surfaced. So Cory, Kavitha, thank you so much for rocking with us.

TURNER: Thank you, Gene.

CARDOZA: Thanks for having us.

DEMBY: Please get some sleep.

CARDOZA: (Laughter).

TURNER: We're working on it.

DEMBY: Cory Turner is a reporter for NPR's Ed Team. Kavitha Cardoza is a reporter for Education Week. All right, y'all, that's our show. If you're not already subscribed to our podcast, please get on that. We'd love to hear from y'all. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org or tweet at us. We're @NPRCodeSwitch.

Today's episode was edited by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Sami Yenigun and produced by Maria Paz Gutierrez and Leah Donnella. Special thanks to our Education Week partners Scott Montgomery, Kathleen Kennedy Manzo and Lesli Maxwell. Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team. I'm Gene Demby. Be easy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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