Is Ron Brown High School Working? Ron Brown High School was built on a novel notion: a school for boys of color, based on a model of restorative justice. We visited the school last year for several episodes to follow its first-ever freshman class. This week, we're going back to see whether the school's unique approach to education is bearing fruit.
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Is Ron Brown High School Working?

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Is Ron Brown High School Working?

Is Ron Brown High School Working?

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: It's Shereen. But one of the guests joining us onstage at Harlem's world-famous Apollo Theater is celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson. Born in Ethiopia, he and his sister were adopted and raised in Sweden, where they were the only black kids around.

MARCUS SAMUELSSON: Not just on the block, not just in the village - actually in the city.

MERAJI: Now he lives in New York City, in Harlem, and runs a restaurant where soul food and Swedish meatballs grace the menu. We'll talk with Marcus Samuelsson live on November 16. Get your tickets at werkevents.com.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

The following episode contains language that some listeners may find offensive.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Gene Demby. Shereen is out this week. On this episode, we're going back to Ron Brown College Prep High School. It's a high school here in D.C. that we spent a little time with last year. It's a story that was very important to a lot of you. We got a lot of emails and tweets about it.

So last year, we spent four episodes with the first freshman class at this brand-new public high school for young men of color. Almost all of the students at the school were black, as were most of the teachers.

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

DEMBY: Kids from all over D.C. chose to come the Ron Brown. Many of them faced steep academic challenges in the classroom, and they were navigating personal trauma outside of it. Here's the principal behind the school, Ben Williams, at the very beginning of that first year.

BENJAMIN WILLIAMS: Who can tell me what happened yesterday?

ZION: Somebody got shot 'round Anacostia High School.

WILLIAMS: A young man that looks like every one of us in this room right now. I'm having difficulties sleeping. I'm having difficulties 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.

DEMBY: Ron Brown was created to help kids handle family and neighborhood trauma with an entire counseling team - it was called the CARE Team - led by psychologist Charles Curtis.

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. We're in the classroom when you're struggling.

DEMBY: That CARE Team even threw a birthday party for one of the school's most troubled boys.

WILLIAMS: (Singing, to the tune of "Happy Birthday To You") Brah (ph), brah, brah, brah, brah, brah.

(LAUGHTER)

WILLIAMS: (Singing, to the tune of "Happy Birthday To You") Brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah - hey, brah.

DEMBY: The school's motto says it all.

WILLIAMS: We are...

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: All in.

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

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: All in.

DEMBY: We are all in. During that first year, there were just over a hundred kings - that's what the students at Ron Brown are called. And the school had a million dollars of private money to spend on those kings. Ron Brown bills itself as an engine of opportunity. There were clubs after school, including the most popular, the chess club, run by the math teacher Shaka Greene.

SHAKA GREENE: The key to chess, really the soul of the game of chess are your pawns. A lot of people don't value their pawns because they're not as cool. Once you learn to value your pawns, you really start to learn to understand and grow at the game of chess.

DEMBY: The kings of Ron Brown spent a lot of time outside of class, too, just traveling. They met the congressman and civil rights activist John Lewis at the U.S. Capitol. Several of them flew to Peru with their Spanish and world history teachers. They also went on a bunch of college tours, like to Morehouse, the historically black college for men in Atlanta. And that trip was a wake-up call for student named Stefan who was struggling academically.

STEFAN: I was thinking about my grades. I was also looking at the fraternity I like. And I was noticing, like, inside that fraternity, they are all scholars. So I can't go inside that fraternity with, like, F's.

DEMBY: Ron Brown is also different in another big, important way. It was built on a model of restorative justice. That means, instead of suspensions and expulsions, students and teachers and counselors and even parents literally sit in circles to talk about the harm done and the trust breached when a student acts out. Then they had to agree on, you know, just how to repair that trust. It's a lot of hard work, and it was new for just about everybody.

DAWAINE COSEY: They're like, is this real? They're like - yo, why don't y'all suspend me? And I'm like, you know we're not suspending you. 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.

DEMBY: That first year, the staff at Ron Brown were trying to balance these two ideas, this idea of restorative justice and emotional development with this other thing, with academics and the cold hard math of the standardized test scores that the school has to hit.

As NPR's Cory Turner and Education Week's Kavitha Cardoza showed us, that whole first year, that whole inaugural year, was full of hard-won victories, like this moment when a student named Justin cleaned up at an academic awards ceremony.

SIERRA: I'm very proud of him - very, very, very, very proud of him (laughter).

JUSTIN: Thanks, Mom.

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.

DEMBY: So next to those hard-won victories, there were a lot of growing pains, a lot of tough decisions. There were fights. A student got shot. And by the end of the year, teachers felt that students weren't spending enough time in class learning and that the school was determined to pass them no matter how bad their grades were.

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. And I am now a Google exec, and I don't want below average. I want the best of the best.

DEMBY: And so a few weeks before the end of the school year, the math teacher Shaka Greene, who you just heard, found out about these two controversial and district-wide grading policies. And one of the policies - students would get 50 percent credit for work they didn't even hand in. And then the second policy - a student could basically pass a class even if that student failed three quarters out of four as long as they got a decent grade in one of those quarters. And Shaka Green was furious. He felt like the students who weren't ready to move up should not be moved up. They should be held back.

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.

DEMBY: But that put Shaka Greene at odds with some of the other staffers that Ron Brown High School. The psychologist Charles Curtis told Greene in this really heated meeting that if we fail one of these young black men at Ron Brown, we're making it much more likely that he ends up living check to check or that he winds up in prison. And that, Curtis said, that's not really acceptable either.

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

DEMBY: Shaka Greene resigned in protest. Then the school year ended and so did our story. It was messy, and we still had a lot of big questions that went unanswered. Like, first of all, restorative justice - does it even work? Secondly, can this school, with its unique approach to helping students socially and emotionally - can it also improve their grades? Or does one have to come at the expense of the other? And finally, is Ron Brown serving the black boys and young black men in the way that it set out to? After the break, we're going to take another crack at answering some of these questions with Cory and Kavitha. Stay with us.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene - just Gene. CODE SWITCH. Well, I guess it's not just me. I'm here with Cory and Kavitha. How's it going, y'all?

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Hi.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Hey, Gene.

DEMBY: So we spent time with the class of 2020 at Ron Brown. They were all freshmen when we were there. They're juniors now. They're a little taller, a little wiser, at least...

CARDOZA: Deeper voices.

DEMBY: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: And they've become, in a lot of ways, keepers of Ron Brown's culture. And I got a chance to go to Ron Brown with you two recently. It was the third week of the school year. It was still hot out here in D.C. Ron Brown's building had expanded - beautiful, like the kind of school you might see in an upper middle-class suburb somewhere...

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...New gym, new auditorium, these gorgeous murals. In the library, there was a giant picture of James Baldwin. It's right across from this other picture...

CARDOZA: Ta-Nehisi Coates.

DEMBY: ...Of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

TURNER: Yeah - their, like, stare-down.

DEMBY: Yeah, they're, like, ice-grilling each other, having this sort of stand-off.

TURNER: Although I have to say, Gene, my favorite moment of the greetings as we got there, seeing people for the first time and getting to introduce you to folks - it actually happened before you got there. You got there a few minutes after we did (laughter). And Kavitha and I ran into the psychologist, Charles Curtis.

CURTIS: Yo.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Tuesdays and Thursdays...

CARDOZA: Long time, Charles.

CURTIS: What's up? How you doing?

CARDOZA: Good.

CURTIS: Ay.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Y'all, make me famous.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Laughter).

CURTIS: But look - Sean Denby (ph), though - I'm a knock him out, man.

(LAUGHTER)

CURTIS: He was talking crazy about us, man.

TURNER: He's going to be here.

CURTIS: Good.

TURNER: He's coming.

CURTIS: Good. So we can...

TURNER: Oh, Sean Denby.

DEMBY: Oh, I know. Right?

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: So in the last time we talked about this, we talked about, you know, sort of Ron Brown and respectability politics and all this other stuff. And Curtis did not take too kindly to some of that.

TURNER: He wasn't a fan of the respectability politics stuff.

DEMBY: No. Actually, Curtis and I had a really good conversation about a lot of this stuff. But one of the things that jumped out to me when I got to Ron Brown was just - besides, like, just how amazing all the hair was; all the students had, like, the most elaborate hair situations going on - was just the diversity among...

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...The teachers. Like, there was this spectrum of black masculinity. Like - you know, like, it was a range of presentation. I thought it was really fascinating. But I don't think I fully appreciated it just hearing the tape the last time.

CARDOZA: It's just fabulous to see because often when you report on a school, there's maybe one black teacher. Or - and then they become the stand-in for everything, and it's so unfair. And over here, you had just every type of man you can imagine.

DEMBY: So let's get to these big questions about Ron Brown. The first sound that we heard from Ron Brown when you guys reported was this circle. It was D. He was a student there who had just been shot a few weeks earlier. And they had circled up, some of the CARE Team. His mom was there. You know, they were trying to essentially recenter him...

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...And try to keep him in the fold of Ron Brown. So I guess our first big question is - is this model, this very labor-intensive, deliberate model of talking everything out, this restorative justice model at Ron Brown - is it working?

TURNER: It's a great question. It's an important question. It does not have a simple answer. So most of the freshmen we followed with you guys, they're juniors now - so Year 3. So when we went back, we talked to lots of staff members, students, parents - what was Year 2 like? - because obviously, Kavitha and I weren't there. And it was really telling. One of the first interviews we did was with Principal Ben Williams, who is usually very careful with what he says to us. And here's what he said about Year 2.

WILLIAMS: I anticipated Year 2 just being hellish. And it was. You know, it stretched every seam almost towards the breaking point. And you know, you double in the size as far as student population, but you don't double in size with staff.

DEMBY: So when he says double in size, he means they had a freshman class that then became a sophomore class. And then...

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: ...you have the freshman class under that sophomore class.

TURNER: A whole new freshman class - that's right.

DEMBY: Right.

TURNER: And what he means when he says we didn't double in staff - because, obviously, they did add some teachers - he's talking very specifically about the CARE Team.

DEMBY: Got you.

TURNER: Last year, they did not add a single member of the CARE Team. The head of the CARE Team, Charles Curtis, the psychologist - he told us this about last year.

CURTIS: I lie to you not - I was going home. I was like talking my wife - like, yo, I'm yelling too much; like, getting into it too much with young - like, this ain't right. Like, this don't feel right. Like, not that we aren't right - but I'm doing too many things. Like, I'm a behavior tech. I'm a psychologist. I'm a dean. And all of us had that same exact feeling.

DEMBY: So everybody was stressed.

CARDOZA: Right. And one of the things to remember, Gene, is it's not just the CARE Team feeling stressed. It's the teachers and the parents as well. I mean, we heard from several of the staff members, teachers, parents who said that the CARE Team wasn't transparent enough.

DEMBY: What do you mean?

CARDOZA: So they felt - teachers felt that they would send a kid to the CARE Team, you know, if they behaved badly. And the teacher was not told what came out of it. So they had no idea what the kind of restorative justice consequence was.

DEMBY: So it could just, like...

CARDOZA: Would just come back...

DEMBY: ...Show up in class later and...

CARDOZA: ...Sometimes doing exactly the same thing. Some staff said they worry about students who were taking advantage of a school that they know doesn't want to kick them out. I'll give you a recent example. A few students, this year, assaulted a homeless man outside the school.

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

CARDOZA: Yeah.

DEMBY: Oh, my God.

CARDOZA: So one of the things I think people were really concerned about is that the school reported it to the school resource officer. But no one is sure what came of that. So we asked what consequences the kids got. And Principal Williams said they spent several days in the school's reflection room.

DEMBY: So they got a timeout? I mean, that's what it sounds like.

CARDOZA: Well, we're just not sure. We heard about the incident independently from five different staff members who felt really strongly that it wasn't handled well and that students should have had stronger consequences and there should have been some kind of public acknowledgement of what happened.

TURNER: It's important to remember from our reporting in the first year - you know, there were several really high-profile incidents at the school that involved students acting out. And oftentimes, they would sort of seize the moment and embrace the mistake and talk about it publicly with the whole school. And it became a teachable moment.

DEMBY: So this idea of consequences - or the lack of consequences, how did the students feel about that?

TURNER: I mean, most of the students we talked to, even the ones who were thriving - and there were plenty who are thriving - they all agreed that last year was pretty rough at points. We also followed up with a lot of students who aren't there anymore...

DEMBY: They left.

TURNER: ...Trying to figure out - yeah, they left - and trying to figure out why. And we talked to their parents, too. And we just want to pick one story that we heard from a student that featured prominently in the podcast. His name is Dahi (ph). He was a peacemaker.

DEMBY: Dahi - Shereen loved Dahi. Dahi for president.

TURNER: Dahi for president.

He was a peacemaker at the school. He's a small guy. He didn't have enemies. He was a good kid who told Kavitha and I both he wanted to become an artist. And this is what he told Kavitha when she checked in with him at the very beginning of Year 2.

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.

CARDOZA: So one of the things that I loved about following Dahi that first year was he loved Ron Brown. He just loved the school. So last year, what happened - he started off well, as you heard in the tape. And then a new ninth-grader - so a kid in the year behind him, along with all his friends, threatened Dahi on a metro train. He pulled a knife and threatened to kill Dahi. And after that, Dahi said that he would be taunted in the hallways. Like, kids would just randomly shout, knife - and, you know, just to kind of rattle him.

DEMBY: Wow. So he's being, like, tormented by this kid.

CARDOZA: Yes.

DAHI: Some of my, quote, unquote, "brothers" make fun of me almost getting stabbed. But now, you know, you got to look over your shoulder and see if anybody's following you. You know, it's horrible. It messed me up. It definitely did mess me up.

DEMBY: So what did the faculty at Ron Brown do?

CARDOZA: The school called the police. The student was arrested. But the student wasn't expelled and, ultimately, was allowed to come back to Ron Brown.

Charles Curtis, the psychologist, wasn't happy about it when we met him. I mean, you were there, too. He said he and his team circled up with the student who pulled the knife, but it was clear the kid just didn't care. He kept denying everything. And Curtis told us...

CURTIS: It wasn't right for Dahi to have to be in the building with someone who just threatened your life. It wasn't right. It certainly wasn't right.

CARDOZA: Dahi left at the end of last year. You know, he had to move in with relatives outside the district so he could attend a different school. I interviewed Dahi recently in his new neighborhood. He feels so out of place. He was dreading going to a new school. He was so traumatized by what had happened. It was heartbreaking, Gene.

DEMBY: So this sounds like the tough part of this restorative justice approach. Right? Like, you have a kid who pulled a knife on somebody. Right? And they still want to give him...

CARDOZA: Every chance possible.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

TURNER: Yes.

DEMBY: So when they give him the restorative justice approach, they want to give him a chance to talk out his motivations and make amends for it. Right?

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: But what are the school's obligations to Dahi, who has to be in the hallway every day with a kid who pulled a knife on him?

TURNER: Right. I mean, their obligation to Dahi - and again, this is part of restorative justice - is he needs to feel safe, and he needs to feel listened to. At the same time, there's also a wildcard here that Principal Williams brought up several times, which is - it's not only part of the restorative justice model that they want to try to hold on to every student and work through this behavior no matter how bad. But Williams also told us - look. It's district policy now - that it's very hard - even if they wanted to simply kick this kid out of school, it would be very hard to do that.

WILLIAMS: D.C. has moved to litigation where out-of-school suspensions are very hard to - they're very hard - how can I say this without getting myself in trouble? It has to be an extreme incident for a student to be out-of-school suspended.

TURNER: Now, it's not clear why this wasn't considered extreme enough, this situation with Dahi. But ultimately, the student was allowed to come back. And Dahi chose to leave even though the student also ultimately left.

DEMBY: So if we go back to our big question here, is this a failure of the restorative justice model in your eyes?

CARDOZA: We think it's a failure of how it was implemented in these cases. So restorative justice is built, you know, on community. And everyone in the community needs to feel safe and respected. And obviously, Dahi didn't. I think part of the problem is, Gene, that the school did not address these issues the way it did in Year 1.

So, for example, in Year 1, they would have had a circle. Everyone in the school would have been there when these students apologized. They might have been asked to write a paper on homelessness or volunteer in a homeless shelter, rebuild trust in the entire community. And in this case, like, in both the cases, it just didn't happen. It was almost swept under the rug.

TURNER: And to your original question, Gene, I don't think these failures in any way mean that restorative justice as an idea or as a policy is a failure. No, not at Ron Brown and not anywhere else - because again, as Kavitha said, especially in Year 1, like, we saw it work. And we also know from research that it's worked in lots of other places, too.

DEMBY: So we're talking about Dahi. Since we're talking about students who have left, how many people have left Ron Brown since that first class that we spent time with, the class of 2020?

CARDOZA: So of the original 105 freshmen, we know roughly 40 have left.

DEMBY: OK, you guys are ed reporters. Is that - is that a lot of people to lose, 40 out of 105?

CARDOZA: That is a lot, though Principal Williams says, we're a choice school district. And because D.C. is a transient city, he expects to lose 10 percent of his students every year. That is a lot.

DEMBY: They've already lost more than the 10 percent, right?

CARDOZA: Though, we should say a lot of kids left for different reasons.

TURNER: Yeah, there were - we talked to a lot of students and parents of those students who left. And it was a whole range of students. So for example, I promised we'd update on D. He's the student who got shot in Year 1. His mother asked the school at the time to circle up with him to try and get him back on the straight and narrow. Here's a bit of tape from that circle.

TAMARA: I'm really scared for him. I'm really scared. And I just feel like there's nothing else I can do. I cannot hold him in the house. So even if I'd be like, 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. 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 - don't know where he is. I don't know where he is.

TURNER: So that was D's mom, who I spoke with recently, catching up with her. Dee is not at Ron Brown. He is incarcerated. He's in Baltimore. He was arrested for possessing and discharging a firearm.

DEMBY: So he had a gun, and he shot it.

TURNER: He had a gun, and he shot it - not necessarily at someone. But he had a gun, and he shot it. We also know a second student in an unrelated incident is also incarcerated, both from the class of 2020.

CARDOZA: We spoke to several students, Gene, who chose to leave. And they gave different reasons. So some said the school was just too chaotic. Some said the staff play favorites. Some said their parents just didn't want them there anymore. One student said he was super offended when a teacher called one of his classmates the N-word.

DEMBY: This is a black teacher, right?

CARDOZA: A black teacher saying it, yes.

DEMBY: OK.

CARDOZA: Several said they left because the academics just aren't rigorous enough.

DEMBY: So let's actually talk about the academics since you brought that up. This is one of our questions, right? Can this school - you know, has this focus on emotional growth and social growth...

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: Can it also get these kids prepare for college? Because that's in its name - it's Ron Brown College Prep High School. So how is Ron Brown doing?

TURNER: Yeah. Well, let's start with test scores - standardized test scores, the big, end-of-year tests that they take at Ron Brown and every other DCPS high school is called the PARCC. You don't need to know what it stands for (laughter). So last year, when the class of 2020 were sophomores, 14 percent scored at grade level or above in English language arts. And in math, it was 1 percent at grade level or above, so 14 percent and 1 percent.

Now, I think the fairest measure of comparison here is actually comparing them against their performance the year before. So then, they scored 11 percent proficient or better in English language arts and 2 percent in math. So you can see, performance in reading and writing ticked up a bit, and performance in math went down a point.

One big caveat, though, since we're talking about test scores, Gene, when you consider that the average student was coming into Ron Brown reading and doing math around the fifth-grade level, they're - they're not going to do well on a test that is really just trying to determine if you are at grade level. But that doesn't mean they're not improving.

DEMBY: So if they started at fifth-grade level and now they're at seventh-grade level...

TURNER: Exactly, yeah.

DEMBY: ...Two years in, that is two years' worth of progress. But it also would not be - it still will not show up in the test scores.

CARDOZA: It wouldn't show up on the PARCC scores, right. Principal Williams emphasized that the school now does regular Saturday school. They've added some new special education teachers. I do want to say though, Gene, that this was one of the reasons several students said they left Ron Brown - because of academics.

I mean, we spoke to one mother who took her son out this year. And he wasn't a top performer. But she told us, when I thought he should have failed, they gave him all these opportunities to make up the book. And she said the school adapted more to the kids than the kids did to the school. And a few weeks ago, she said her son is now in a school where he gets homework. And she said, he just does it. He doesn't complain about it. He knows what's expected of him.

DEMBY: So this idea, this idea of the academic rigor at Ron Brown was a big part of the original reporting that we did last year. I'm curious, has the district's grading policies changed? We'd heard a little bit about them that said the students can get credit - could get half credit for work that they didn't even turn in and that they could pass if they passed one quarter. Are those still the rules for D.C. Public Schools?

TURNER: Yeah, so we asked Principal Williams about these two grading policies. We also talked to his boss, David Pinder, at the district to figure out if they were still policies. David Pinder told us that both policies had been changed. The word he used was tweaked. But it was also hard to get specificity on what that meant since tweaked suggests some vestiges of these policies remain. It's still not clear. We asked for follow up. We haven't gotten it yet.

DEMBY: So these policies are why Shaka Greene, the math teacher and the chess coach, these policies are why he left.

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: Do you guys know where Shaka Greene is now?

TURNER: That took some work (laughter) to figure out.

CARDOZA: It did.

TURNER: Kavitha and I both tried to find him. At first, he didn't respond to our emails. But then I got a really surprising text message from a very good friend of mine saying, hey, you're never gonna guess who's teaching chess at the kids' school, Shaka Greene. So then I emailed Greene again. And he wrote me back. And I just want to read one thing he wrote. He said, overall, things are great with me. The chess program is still humming along nicely, and my work affords me the opportunity to continue to work with and mentor young people on a daily basis.

DEMBY: So he did not want to talk about Ron Brown.

TURNER: Nope, he did not.

DEMBY: So to go back to our second big question, can Ron Brown, emphasizing, you know, social and emotional development, can it get kids ready for college? Can it get them academically up to speed for college?

CARDOZA: So I think, Gene, it's really clear that there needs to be a lot more emphasis on academics. You know, when they had their math dream team, Shaka Greene and Matthew Lawrence, the kids made almost two years' progress in just one academic year.

DEMBY: Wow.

CARDOZA: So it can be done. There needs to be a lot more emphasis on it. But I definitely don't think it's an either-or. It has to be both. The challenge is finding that balance. And I think the school is still young. It's just starting its third year. Also, we spoke to several students, current students, who are really thriving. I mean, they're taking AP world history, and they love it. We ran into one student, Mahmud (ph). I mean, three, four years ago, he said he didn't speak English. And now he's studying biotechnology at UC Berkeley over the summer.

DEMBY: Wow.

TURNER: You know, another important measure of a school's effectiveness is how engaged the students feel. You know, do they want to be there? And when you look at the daily attendance rate at Ron Brown, it is exceptionally high. It's like 15 or 20 points higher than other high schools in the area. It's like 85 percent of students are in their seats on any given day.

DEMBY: Wow.

TURNER: And that suggests that these kids want to be there.

DEMBY: And that's one of the things I picked up when I visited with you guys. We were walking the hallways with Ben Williams, the principal. And he called out this one kid who was not in uniform. He called him out. He, like, poked his head in the classroom, chastised him. But then, at the end of the school day, I was standing outside with Ben Williams. And that same kid was, like, walking away from campus. And he stopped, came back, and they dapped (ph) each other up, and they started cracking at each other. Like, Ben Williams started cracking about his clothes. He started calling him - and he - and the student started doing the same thing.

And I'd never - I was just trying to remember the last time I saw somebody, like, you know, give a pound to their principal before. But there were - that kept happening. There were students who were walking, and they kept stopping to go back and dap up Principal Williams, which says something about, I guess, the way they feel about him and the school.

TURNER: Yeah, I mean, it's a strange and important dynamic, like, you just don't see in a lot of schools. And this is a really good transition to what Kavitha and I both have found this year to be maybe the biggest success story at Ron Brown and one of the biggest surprises for us. It's a student named Rashawn (ph), who we we heard from in the original podcast, where he was talking about before he came to Ron Brown, like, he would constantly try to get kicked out of school.

RASHAWN: I didn't really go to school.

CARDOZA: What do you mean?

RASHAWN: I was either suspended, or I skipped school.

TURNER: And, I mean, I remember that first year. I remember sitting in Rashawn's very first restorative circle. He was prickly. He was standoffish. He wouldn't even sit down. The CARE Team kept telling him, like, sit down, Rashawn, sit down. And he's like, I don't want to talk about my feelings. I don't know what this is about. This is stupid. I am out of here. And Kavitha and I went back. And we talked to Rashawn. And he was like a - he was a changed guy. He actually went on a trip through the school to Guatemala. And it had a big impact on him.

RASHAWN: The kids there, I connected with them, like, seeing their struggle. And, like, I struggled a lot too. And seeing that, it, like, I don't know. I cried. So it did something to me. I'm starting to raise money for, like, their school. So it's, like, a hundred dollars for a whole year for, like, uniforms and books and stuff. So I've got a fundraiser for that. And, like, with the fundraiser, I'm also doing, like, clothes drives stuff.

CARDOZA: So many staff members said, I mean, Rashawn is a different kid.

TURNER: And notice, everything that he's saying there ties into restorative justice. He's talking about a community. He's talking about helping his peers, even if they're in Guatemala. And not to hit the point too hard, but the Rashawn I sat with in that circle two years ago would never have admitted that he cried.

DEMBY: So this third and final big question we had was, is Ron Brown serving black boys and young black men the way it set out to?

TURNER: Well, let's - let's start with the good. I mean, there's good research that shows students do better when their teachers look like them and can relate to their backstories. And that is clearly true and always has been at Ron Brown. The school also uses a culturally responsive curriculum that Kavitha and I have seen moving in powerful ways with the students. So those are good. It's also a - still a relatively small school. And that's usually good news for students as well. They still have money. You know, they're creating lots of opportunities for students who are willing to take advantage of them. A bunch of students actually got to meet President Obama this summer.

DEMBY: Wow. Wait.

TURNER: Just, like, a random drop-in.

DEMBY: How did they respond to President Obama? I'm curious.

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TURNER: Principal Williams told us that in the run-up that they were all like - oh, yeah, you know, whatever, whatever.

CARDOZA: No big deal...

DEMBY: Teenagers, right.

CARDOZA: ...We meet presidents all the time.

TURNER: And then they walk in the room. They're like, oh - oh. He's real. So you know, the school really is a kind of opportunity engine for the students like Mahmud and Rashawn, who are now in a place where they're eager to take advantage of those opportunities.

CARDOZA: Also, black boys are not a monolith. Right? I mean, each of them needs something different. So Mahmud needs time to study biotech at Berkeley. Rashawn, it took, like, a ton of patience and a trip to Guatemala. For Stefan, another kid who loved football, I mean, now he can play varsity football, and he is thrilled. But for some students, Gene, Ron Brown was not the right place. Right? It's not all good news. For Dahi and for other students like Dahi, Ron Brown could have been the right place for him. He fell through the cracks. And I think what I was most disappointed about was Principal Ben Williams and other staff members didn't seem to know the reasons why these kids had left.

It's an expensive model, and so we're not sure. In Year 3, they've added new CARE Team members. Can that be done Year 4? Will it ever - will they ever have enough money to do that? I also think when it's the beginning of Year 3 and you hear from some teachers, parents, students and they're saying - well, what are the consequences of behavior? What does the CARE Team do? What is restorative justice? - that's not a good place to be in.

TURNER: Yeah. And I agree with Kavitha that there is definitely still room to improve. I just - I have kept thinking about one letter that a listener sent in when we did these stories the first time around. The listener was pretty salty writing in and said, look. You know, we just have unrealistic expectations for schools, especially a school like this that is dedicated to helping young men of color, because we're asking the school to make up for the legacy of slavery, chronic poverty, trauma in their neighborhoods and even in their families, subtle and overt racism. I mean, how can a school make up for all this? And the fact is that it can't. So we need to keep that in mind as we also hold schools accountable for the things that they can control.

CARDOZA: I definitely agree that there are things that schools can't control, all of the things Cory mentioned. I also do think there are a lot of things they can control. And one of the things Ron Brown could control is its response to certain incidents. Right? The Dahi incident or the teacher using the N-word - all of that, you could have had a better response, I think.

I would say Ron Brown, in many ways, has advantages compared to neighborhood comprehensive schools that are much, much bigger. Right? They're filled with very poor kids. They don't have a dedicated CARE Team dealing with social-emotional stuff. They don't have a lot of money to spend on rewards and really fabulous outings and things like that. And Ron Brown also has great teachers built on this model. They came up with this concept, and they set their goals.

So I feel they could have anticipated a Dahi. Right? I mean, bullying happens in every school. I would say pulling knives is very common. I think there's a lot of things they could have anticipated. And I think, going forward, there needs to be more structure and much more communication.

DEMBY: You know, when I went back to the school with you guys, we sat down with Charles Curtis, the school psychologist. And even he seemed to have sort of shifted in his thinking about the way Ron Brown approaches stuff - right? - after the Dahi stuff in particular - right? - whereas in Year 1, we heard from a lot of the people on the CARE Team that the most important thing they had to do was to show love - to give love to these students, like, unconditional love, wrapping them around, enveloping them in love.

CARDOZA: They would say pour love into the students.

DEMBY: Absolutely.

TURNER: Yeah.

DEMBY: But Curtis seemed - his feelings seemed more nuanced in Year 3.

CURTIS: I think that part of what I've learned at Ron Brown is that love is - love isn't enough in and of itself. Like, you got to have a love that is informed; a love has the capacity to be, like, thorough; and love that is circumspect - like, love that recognizes it won't always look one way.

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DEMBY: Thank you, Cory and Kavitha.

CARDOZA: Thanks for having us.

TURNER: Thank you, Gene.

DEMBY: Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week and Cory Turner of NPR.

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DEMBY: All right, y'all. That's our show for this week. Please follow us on Twitter. We're @nprcodeswitch. We want to hear from you. Our email is codeswitch@npr.org. You can always send your burning questions about race with the subject line Ask CODE SWITCH. You can sign up for our newsletter at npr.org/newsletter/code-switch. And subscribe to the show on NPR One or wherever you get your podcasts.

This episode was produced by Lauren Migaki. It was edited by Steve Drummond and Sami Yenigun. Special thanks to the folks at Education Week. Shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam - Walter Ray Watson, Karen Grigsby Bates. Leah Donnella, Adrian Florido, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Kumari Devarajan and Kat Chow. Mayowa Aina is our Kroc Fellow, and our intern is Andrea Henderson.

I'm Gene Demby. Shereen Marisol Meraji is back next week. Be easy, y'all.

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