Episode 2: 'They Can't Just Be Average' : Code Switch In a radical new high school in Washington, D.C., the push for academic success sometimes clashes with providing young men the love and support they need to thrive.

Episode 2: 'They Can't Just Be Average'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/559535682/559999119" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What's good, y'all? So before we get the show started this week, we want to tell you about our live show coming up in Chicago...


Oh, yes.

DEMBY: ...Next month. It's presented by WBEZ and The Fest and curated by Third Coast.

MERAJI: Catch us live at the Harris theater Friday, November 10. Joining us will be poet/scholar/artist, Chicago's own Eve Ewing.


MERAJI: 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, and now he's a filmmaker. He's going to talk to us about his new documentary, "The Problem With Apu."

MERAJI: And in case you don't know who Apu is, he's that character on "The Simpsons."

DEMBY: And you can get your tickets for our show online. Go to info at WBEZ slash events (ph).

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


CHARLES CURTIS: They can't just be average. They can't. They can't have C's. They can't just, you know, be OK citizens. Come senior year, that shit has to go.

DEMBY: That's Charles Curtis. He's the psychologist at a new public high school for young men of color in Washington, D.C. It's called Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. The first freshman class of roughly 100 students is almost all black. And remarkably, most of the school's faculty members are black men.

MERAJI: And Ron Brown's goal - zero suspensions, as much productive classroom time as possible and the expectation of greatness from its students. In school, they're called kings.

DEMBY: And Curtis says - in what feels like a little bit of hyperbole here - that there should be no such thing as an average king at Ron Brown.

CURTIS: Even if it's there, then we failed. Like, that's on us. If they ain't tightened up - if they ain't better than that, then that's our bad. Like, they cannot be average. There is no place in the world for an average black person. It ain't. Or there is a place - a cage.


MERAJI: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: And I'm Gene Demby. And you're listening to the second part of our three-part series, "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep."

MERAJI: And as you just heard, there's a ton of pressure on the faculty and staff to get this right, pressure they've put on themselves and there's outside pressure, too. School district leaders in the city have high expectations. And one measure of whether the school meets them will be test scores.

DEMBY: Right. And the adults at Ron Brown worry that, by the end of the year, if these test scores don't go up, their radical experiment here will be seen as a failure. But many of the students at this school are years behind when it comes to math and reading.

MERAJI: So it'd be one thing if all the faculty needed to do was focus on getting those kids up to speed. But they're dealing with so many other challenges at the same time, from everyday teenage drama to immense trauma.

DEMBY: Today our reporters, Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week and NPR's Corey Turner, start in the classroom. Let's meet some of the teachers facing down these challenges on their journey toward greatness.


KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: Chapter 1 - What Learning Looks Like.

We've said it many times now; Ron Brown's approach to discipline is radical. Its approach to school culture is radical.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Well, its approach to academics is, in many ways, just as radical. And we're going to spend the first half of this episode getting to know two veteran teachers at the heart of that approach.

SCHALETTE GUDGER: What are some of the themes we've discussed?

TURNER: First, Schalette Gudger.

GUDGER: So you think that white society still see us as all the same. So why do we distinguish?

TURNER: Gudger, known as Ms. G, heads the English department. And she's one of the few women in the building.

CARDOZA: She's one of the school's two academic gatekeepers. Students have to pass English to get to the 10th grade. At Ron Brown, Ms. G teaches the classics but in a way that's much more likely to connect with the kings.

RASHAWN: Morrison uses blue eyes to symbolize Pecola's feelings of ugliness and otherness by...

TURNER: That's a king named Rashawn (ph). Today he and his classmates, with help from Ms. G., are unpacking Toni Morrison's novel "The Bluest Eye." It's about a dark-skinned girl named Pecola who wants blue eyes. And it leads to a discussion about racism.

GUDGER: So we will tell someone light that they're not black enough?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: (Unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: You said (unintelligible).

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #4: You said (unintelligible) no.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #5: You said something like that.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: I said something like...


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #6: When the white people did it, we took it in and we've, like, mastered it basically, just like what Pecola did with the blue eyes.

GUDGER: Goes back to that article we read about internalized racism - right? - and the hurt that it causes.

TURNER: The students, many of them, lean forward in their chairs. They are deeply invested in this conversation.

GUDGER: So we say - OK, Cameron's (ph) not black enough because he has curly hair. Kelvin's (ph) too black. Why do we do that?


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: You're not educated enough to make a smart comment about somebody. And we're not educated enough because of the government.

GUDGER: Imagine that. Carter G. Woodson said we've been educated against ourselves.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #7: Based off what's placed in our head.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #8: (Unintelligible).

GUDGER: And what we don't decide to replace with proper knowledge.

CARDOZA: Gudger embodies tough love. Her arms covered in tattoos of ivy and butterflies. The sides of her head are shaved but atop sits an elegant wave of hair dyed deep magenta.

TURNER: She's worked in classrooms for 16 years, not just in the U.S. but also South Korea and Turkey. Earlier in the year, she told parents she expects a lot from their young men.

GUDGER: So if I'm tough on them, it's because I have high expectations for them. 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. And if they will allow me, I will give them what I have. But I'm not going to fight behaviors. I expect greatness.

CARDOZA: At one point, Gudger has her students read "Romeo And Juliet" and then, if they want, rewrite it in their own words.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #9: (As Prince) What's your master doing?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #10: (As Page) I think, yeah. He brung some flowers.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #9: (As Prince) Why he bring the flowers?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #10: (As Page) Let me finish - so he can put them in his lady's grave. He told me to roll out, so I did. I'm shocked. Then some man ran up with a torch...

CARDOZA: There's a name for all this. It's called culturally responsive teaching. And it's about respecting Shakespeare while also respecting students' voices and life experiences. Most of the teachers in the building use this approach as a way to connect with their students.

GUDGER: But even the most culturally responsive teaching can't make up for one big challenge facing Gudger and the school's other English, Mr. Sellars.

JABARI SELLARS: I can talk about a book until I'm blue in the face. I can turn a kid's opinion about a book from I hate it to I love it. But all of that is predicated upon the idea that these kids know how to read.

CARDOZA: Know how to read? Cory, that's kind of shocking - right? - to hear that from a teacher at a college prep school.

TURNER: Yeah. I mean, considering what we know about child development, you should be reading to learn by third grade. We're talking about ninth grade here. And couple that with the fact that Ron Brown is not a remedial school for students who are behind. It's not an alternative school for dropouts. It is a citywide lottery school.

CARDOZA: The problem here is that citywide roughly 85 percent of black male students are reading below grade level.

TURNER: Yeah. And that's not just a D.C. problem. It's much the same story nationally. Black male students are really vulnerable in our schools.

CARDOZA: At Ron Brown, the kings, who are all ninth-graders, came in reading, on average, like fifth- and sixth-graders. And that hides the fact that some are profoundly behind, reading like first- and second-graders.

TURNER: And the same is true in math. One day, Patricia Odom of the CARE Team - she handles all the student data, and she shows me this spreadsheet.

So the category is beginning-of-year math grade level. Just read down the list for me, would you?

PATRICIA ODOM: So there's a fourth grade, fourth grade - third, third, third, fifth, sixth - eight, four, four, four, twelve, twelve, three...

TURNER: And again, those numbers - that's the grade level of math that these students are able to do. So in an ideal world, these ninth-graders should all be eights and nines - or better. And clearly, some are. But most aren't.

ODOM: ...Four, two, two, two, three. And like, seeing the second and third grade is disheartening for me 'cause to me it's like - so where were you in middle school? What was happening in your middle school classroom or in fifth grade?

TURNER: What was happening is they didn't learn the material, and yet they were still promoted on to the next grade.

CARDOZA: The problem now is that many of these students need basic remedial math. But Ron Brown is a college prep school, right? It isn't prepared to do basic.

TURNER: Yeah. So instead, students get dropped into the ice bath that is ninth-grade algebra.

SHAKA GREENE: I saw one person do both. I haven't seen everyone do both.


CARDOZA: Shaka Greene is the other teacher we want you to meet and the school's other academic gatekeeper. He's head of the math department.

TURNER: Greene is tall and wiry, often in a bow tie. In his classroom, there's rarely a disruption. And if a student does get out of line, usually a gentle tap on the shoulder from Greene is all it takes to get him back on task.

CARDOZA: In the months that follow, when we ask students - who's your favorite teacher? - it's often Mr. Greene.

TURNER: And that's because he knows what many of these young men are going through.

GREENE: I watched my mother work multiple jobs simultaneously to make sure that we ate. There were times I went to school with holes in my shoes, so I get it. That is why I am as hard on them as I am because I know your circumstances don't matter as much as your will and your desire to be successful.

CARDOZA: And students have to be successful in his class to move on to the 10th grade. It's Greene's job to get these kings caught up no matter how far behind they are.

TURNER: Yeah, he's got to teach ninth-grade algebra even to students who can't do third-grade math. And Greene says he struggles sometimes to find a balance between loving these students and preparing them for the real world.

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.

Now if there's anything difficult about what we've done so far, it's the next step.

CARDOZA: Today in class, the kings are trying to solve problems on personal dry erase boards. Greene leans over shoulders, watching them work. When one student struggles to add negative 1 and positive 1, Greene gets creative.

GREENE: Think about it in terms of money. You owe me a dollar, and then you pay me a dollar.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #12: Then I ain't got nothing.

GREENE: Zero, right?


GREENE: So a negative 1 plus a positive 1 is 0. Now read that.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #12: One equals negative 1.

GREENE: Is that true?



GREENE: One is not the same thing as negative 1?


GREENE: So you mean you would rather have a dollar than owe me a dollar?


GREENE: OK. Very good. So make a line through the equal sign. That's not equal.

CARDOZA: The student stares at his board proudly and says, that was simple.


TURNER: Now Greene and his fellow teachers have to make breakthroughs like this one and multiply them every day, especially for the students who are five - even six years behind.

CARDOZA: And D.C. Public School leaders think they can do it. The district told us a quality teacher can move kids roughly two grade levels in a single year.

TURNER: Though we focused on just two teachers, at Ron Brown, many of them are all-stars with experience teaching in big city schools. And many have taken pay cuts to be here, all of them drawn to the mission of the school.

CARDOZA: But packing two years of learning into one year of teaching takes a lot of work, both from the teacher and the students.

TURNER: And Greene says, at this point, too many students just don't see what's in it for them. They're not thinking long term. They're doing just enough to get by. And they don't share his sense of urgency.

GREENE: It's the lethargy. It's the dragging. And I'm like, come on. We've got to go. You should be moving faster. We should be moving faster.


CARDOZA: Chapter 2 - Trying to Pick Up the Pace.

By October, the school is trying to motivate students to take class more seriously.

LESLIE EDWARDS: Here you go, sir. Doing a phenomenal job showing up for Reading Plus...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #13: How do I get student of the month? I still didn't get that.

EDWARDS: ...Taking advantage, improving that readings score.

CARDOZA: The school's assistant principal stands at the front desk handing out the kind of pass every student here wants.

EDWARDS: You get to dress down tomorrow for putting enough hours in for Reading Plus.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #14: Oh, tomorrow? What about (unintelligible)?

EDWARDS: For tomorrow. I want you to push yourself, though. Now that means more hours. Now you set the standard.

TURNER: The dress-down pass means students don't have to wear their uniforms. To earn one, they have to log a certain number of hours on the computer practicing their reading.

CARDOZA: There are other incentives as well, for grades and good attendance.

TURNER: Like a video game truck and gift cards - there's even a trip out of town to Six Flags.

CARDOZA: Ron Brown has $1 million of private funding to help with stuff like this.

TURNER: And that's worth noting for two reasons. One, most schools can only dream of having that kind of money. And two, there's no proof that any of it's actually working.

CARDOZA: Plus, it doesn't get to the heart of the problem. Many students are taking classes they are just not ready for. They're confused and can't keep up. And that's frustrating, even demoralizing. And one thing makes all of this even harder - poverty.

TURNER: A quick reminder - most of the kings at Ron Brown are low income. Nearly half qualify for food stamps. Some don't get enough to eat. Many have to take care of little brothers and sisters.

CARDOZA: Some bounce between homes and even caregivers. Others have experienced violence and trauma.

TURNER: And if it sounds like we've suddenly stopped talking about academics, well, think again because all of this has real implications in the classroom.

CARDOZA: Poverty and trauma can make it harder for students to focus, to remember and to persist - and can lead to real disruptions in the classroom.

CURTIS: A lot of the young kings in this space don't even know how to dream 'cause shit is so toxic, they don't go to sleep. Obviously we're talking in metaphor - right? But, like, they for real don't have no dreams.

TURNER: That's Charles Curtis, the psychologist, early on at a teacher training.

CURTIS: So that means you, as my teacher - your job is to show me how to dream. You know what I'm saying? Like, I for real don't know how to do it. I don't know how to plan. I don't know how to think beyond this moment and saying I don't want it. I have to learn.

TURNER: So this question, academically, of what should teachers realistically expect day in and day out - well, it's a difficult one.

CARDOZA: Here's a good example. Is it OK for a student to sleep in class? In many schools, the answer is obviously no. How can you learn if you're asleep? But early on, Gudger tells her fellow teachers...

GUDGER: Some of them are so on edge that they literally do not sleep at night.


GUDGER: So if you need a break - like, if you're comfortable enough here to put your head down - baby, by all means, rest.

CARDOZA: To be clear, though, Gudger makes it her business to know why a student is sleeping or acting out. So at one point, when a king tries to sleep through her class, a student she knows can do better...

GUDGER: I sat right where I was and took a picture...


GUDGER: ...Of him sleeping in class.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: You wanted to send it to his dad?

GUDGER: I sent it right to his mom.

TURNER: Did you text her right in the middle of class?

GUDGER: I did.

TURNER: You have to know what students are dealing with, Gudger says, and what they're capable of. Your standards have to be high, but they can't be one size fits all.

GUDGER: It's not that we're saying - oh, they don't have this or, you know, they come from this underprivileged society and so I'm going to let them be that way or stay in that circle. Sometimes the dream is as simple as this - guess what - by Friday, you're going to write a paragraph.

CARDOZA: Here, though, you can begin to hear a difference between our two veteran teachers, Gudger and Greene. Mr. Greene, the math teacher, knows poverty is a huge challenge for his students, but he worries it can also become an excuse.

GREENE: Not having lights on, not having food in the refrigerator - that's not a state of mind. That's a reality. That is a real thing. But also what's real is getting off your behind and doing the very best that you can. So yeah, there's poor and there's poverty and there's racism. But there's also hard work and determination and grit and fortitude.

TURNER: This difference between Greene and Gudger gets to a really fundamental debate in education. How should we measure success with students who are behind?

CARDOZA: Gudger's line about writing a paragraph - well, she's arguing that it's through incremental growth; figure out where a student is, no matter how far behind, and start making progress. At the end of the year, he may still be behind, but he's improved.

TURNER: Greene's point about hard work and determination is that if students don't end up where they're supposed to be - on grade level like their peers in other schools and other places across the country - well, then they're still behind. And that's going to hurt them, not just in school but in life. And that's why, he says, he takes such a hard line on this.

CARDOZA: Here's another difference between Greene and Gudger, the amount of time students spend with them. See, at Ron Brown, literacy is the priority. It's embedded in everything the students do. They even write in gym class.

TURNER: The idea is a king who can't read or write well - well, they can't succeed in any class, not just English. But students spend just two days a week in math. That's two and a half hours, Greene says, far less than even lunch.

GREENE: That's five hours a week. They spent more time eating and laughing and joking than they did in math class. That's a problem.

TURNER: In fact, Greene has complained to principal Ben Williams from the get-go about how little time he has with his students. And that's not his only problem. On one hand, he has to focus much of his energy on students who are far behind.

CARDOZA: But he also worries that his other students, the 1 in 5 who are on track, aren't learning.

MATTHEW LAWRENCE: So I'm Mr. Lawrence. And Mr. Greene...


CARDOZA: Here, Greene and the other math teacher, Matthew Lawrence, are having a parent-teacher conference with Erica (ph), whose son is getting a B-minus in math.

LAWRENCE: We're just worried that he's sort of lowering his bar. Like, OK, I'm still the top in the class; I don't have to work as hard now.

ERICA: So he's doing just enough to...

LAWRENCE: He's got a B. Like, he's doing fine. You know, there's not a concern about him.

ERICA: That - well, I have to say - I'm, like, overjoyed with the B.

GREENE: I'm not.

CARDOZA: That's Greene saying, I'm not; I think he's an A student.

GREENE: He's able to show mastery on whatever it is that we're presenting in front of him consistently.

TURNER: Translation - he thinks this student should be doing better.

CARDOZA: It's hard for Greene, though, to spend class time trying to motivate him with so many other students who are genuinely struggling. That's because teachers started the year with students largely mixed together with little regard for academic ability.

TURNER: This kind of co-mingling was meant, in part, to send a clear message - we expect greatness from everyone. But in reality, it means few kings are getting what they need. And teachers are becoming exasperated.

CARDOZA: So several weeks into the school year, principal Ben Williams blows up his class schedule. He more clearly separates students based on ability to make sure those who can read and do math like ninth- and tenth-graders aren't sitting with kings seven or 8 school years behind them. He also puts those kings who need more help into smaller classes.

TURNER: And that's not all. The school goes all out celebrating students who do their best.


TURNER: At the end of the first quarter, early one morning before community circle, the school's CARE Team is hard at work.

CARDOZA: They are huddled with a small gaggle of kings, the school's first honor roll, trying to show them how to tie their ties.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: So the long side goes under and come back up.

CARDOZA: But these aren't any ties. To celebrate these top scholars, the school has given them bow ties.

TURNER: Other kings stop and watch, mystified. It's partly because the tie-tying is not going well.

Do any of you guys know how to tie a bow tie?


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #16: I know how to tie a regular tie but not a bow tie.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #17: His neck is a 17.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: That man's neck ain't no 17 - no way. Your neck is probably a 14.

TURNER: The school holds a small assembly, too, for the few kings who made honor roll, hoping to encourage and inspire the rest.


TURNER: Chapter 3 - After School with Mr. Greene.

By the end of October, one thing is clear. Ron Brown is not a 9-to-3, show up, do your work and leave kind of school. That's true of the staff and teachers, who regularly put in 10- and 12-hour days. And the hope is students will, too.

CARDOZA: Ron Brown was designed to be a home away from home, where teachers act like family, the cafeteria serves three meals a day and students can come early and stay late. That's one reason the school offers dozens of afterschool clubs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: (Rapping) Wasn't even talking about you name, it seems, rocking up around your neck like a tie that's green - or the green on your braces or the blue I see on your Jordan laces. We spit from many faces. I'm just rhyming words on a 2 and a 4.

CARDOZA: Students can get lessons like this in freestyling as well as street art and DJing.

TURNER: There's also fishing and swimming and computer clubs.

CARDOZA: But early on, few students stick around for any of them.

TURNER: In fact, the most popular club is down the hall in Mr. Greene's room.

JUSTIN: Bishop can move diagonally. It is also worth three points.

CARDOZA: This young king, Justin (ph), is trying to memorize the basics of chess. He's dropping in on Greene's chess club for the first time.

TURNER: The club is so popular students come from other schools to play, 10 to 20 students every afternoon until 6 o'clock.

GREENE: These are your knights, not horses. These are your knights.

TURNER: Greene walks Justin around the board.

GREENE: I like to think of your bishops as your aunt and uncle. Like, you can call your aunt, and she'll send you money for college real quick.

TURNER: He works through the king and the queen and last but not least...

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, but pawns are unique. If I'm able to get my pawn all the way to your last rank, this pawn can become any piece on the board that I want it to become other than a king or another pawn. Once you learn to value your pawns, you really start to understand and grow at the game of chess.

CARDOZA: Greene could just as easily be talking about his students because he believes passionately that if you can just help them get to the other side of the board, they can become anything.

TURNER: And this faith, Kavitha, in their potential, it's the reason many kings skip the deejaying and the street art and the weight room and they go right for Greene's classroom after school, students like Dahi (ph), who doesn't even like math, but he loves chess club.

DAHI: I think Mr. Greene is like a father figure, you know? I wish he was my dad, but he isn't. I mean, he's a...

CARDOZA: What makes him stand out?

DAHI: The way he comes in and just, like, the tone that he sets for everybody. I just think that he's basically a figure of what a black man should look like.


MERAJI: We're going to take a quick break now.

DEMBY: When we come back, all hell breaks loose.


MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: CODE SWITCH. Through September and October each day, Ron Brown gets closer to finding balance between the work being done outside class with the CARE Team and in class with its teachers.

DEMBY: But somewhere around Halloween, everything falls apart. One king is arrested on campus. He's escorted away by the police. That same day of that arrest, a fight breaks out in the cafeteria where another student punches a security guard. A third king skips class, and when he's confronted, punches a member of the CARE Team.

MERAJI: And it gets worse.

CURTIS: It's been on the news, actually, a shooting in Capitol Heights - six people shot, two dead.

MERAJI: Charles Curtis, the psychologist, says one of the six people shot is a Ron Brown student. We're using his initial, D, to protect his identity. And we met him and his mom, Tamara, in part one. D got shot in the foot at a dice game. His best friend was shot and killed.

TAMARA: I mean, I'm really scared for him, really scared, and I just feel like there's nothing else I can do.

DEMBY: We're going to pick up D's intervention where we left it in the first episode with members of the CARE Team and the school social worker, Roosevelt Cohens, sitting in a circle. Cohens tells D, who was slumped in his chair and looking sad, that if he doesn't change, he could go to jail.

ROOSEVELT COHENS: And, man, don't want that for you. You too - you're better than that, young brother. Whatever I feel like I can do to get you one step further away from D.C. jail is what I need to do, man. I'm all in, man. You know that.

MERAJI: Finally, D shares his feelings. That's an important part of these restorative justice circles. Everyone has a voice. D says, when he was recently locked up, it was like the world was closing in on him.

D: Can't go to sleep till, like, 4 in the morning 'cause I was thinking about everything that was happening, and it was just stressing me out. I felt bad for my mom. And I didn't want my little brothers to know where I was at. I don't want - I don't want to be gone, though.

DEMBY: I don't want to be gone, he says.


MERAJI: The CARE Team makes a plan for D so that won't happen. He's got to come to school on time. He has an 8:30 curfew on the weeknights, and he's got to text his mom every day at 7 p.m. to let her know he's safe. D's reluctant but agrees.

DEMBY: It took them hours of talking to get to this point, but there's still a lot of leftover tension in the room. The psychologist, Charles Curtis, breaks that tension by saying out loud what everybody is feeling - I'm tired.

MERAJI: And we're only three months into the school year. We'll let Kavitha and Cory take it from here.


TURNER: Chapter 4 - Can Every Student Be Saved? We're going to spend the rest of this episode in triage with the CARE Team during this terrible week at the beginning of November because, remember, the more comfortable students feel, the less they'll act out and the more everyone can learn, but a week this bad can be a huge distraction.

CARDOZA: We've talked about D's troubles. Now, we want to spend a second on the fight Shereen and Gene mentioned earlier in the cafeteria where a king punches a security guard. While Principal Williams debates suspending the young man, he's tired of hearing from parents worried that his school isn't safe, his staff too forgiving.

TURNER: But Curtis, the psychologist, reminds him suspension won't help this student. It's not the Ron Brown way. So Williams lets him stay. But soon after, Curtis says, when he tells the young man he's not allowed back in the cafeteria yet, well, the king threatens him.

CURTIS: He, like, kind of gets in my space. I'm like, well, what are you doing? Like, are you - what are you doing right now? And then he's yelling, getting in my - I was like, oh, this is - so you really can't be in the building. You're going home. I'm going to call mom (laughter). We'll get - not today. This ain't what we doing.

TURNER: Don't let Curtis' laugh there fool you. The school issues its first suspension. This is a big deal for a school passionately opposed to suspending students.

CARDOZA: It's also an important test of the school's restorative justice philosophy. When is enough enough? And it kicks off a debate one day within the CARE Team.

TURNER: On one side is the counselor Shatane Porter.

SHATANE PORTER: But some kids are a piece of shit.


PORTER: And that's what they are. It's in their DNA. It's just in their DNA.

TURNER: Yes, they're laughing, but, remember, these days have been brutal. The CARE Team is trying to break through with a handful of really troubled kings, but they keep running into walls, and they know it's affecting other students and teachers. The lunch bell rings, but Porter is not done.

PORTER: It's like - I just...


PORTER: I just - yeah, I just feel like some people are just - they're just made that way.

CURTIS: I don't think they made that way. I think - I think their environment make them that way, their momma, their whatever, their daddy, their lack thereof. I think those things make them that way.

CARDOZA: That's Curtis arguing the other side, but Porter says he's seen hardened criminals with more compassion. He worries some students at Ron Brown simply don't have any empathy.

PORTER: I done see drugs, sniffing, coke, crack. I've been shot. Listen, I done seen all type of shit. It don't - it don't - listen, I've hung out with some real shady dudes, like, that have done some real shady shit. At the same breath, they see an old lady, they going to help her cross the street, they going to help with her bag. They're not going to...

TURNER: And it bothers Porter. It's like these students don't seem to care if they hurt themselves or someone else. Curtis argues the school's few troublemakers learned their bad habits. They can learn good habits, too, but they need help.

CURTIS: So if somebody taught you not to steal, something about, like, the code of the dudes you were around, whatever - some kind of way you had to learn those boundaries. Men do X. Men don't do this.

CARDOZA: And this moment really helps crystallize our understanding of the CARE Team's approach. Let's go back to the school's first and only suspension so far - the student who punched a security guard and nearly punched Curtis. If after that first punch he'd been willing to talk and repair the harm, he could have stayed.

TURNER: But he was combative and showed no empathy. That's the key. Combative, they can handle; callous, they can't. Because restorative justice is built on a shared sense of community. If a student doesn't care about the people around him and he can't feel their pain when he causes them harm, well, the whole idea falls apart.

CARDOZA: Dawaine Cosey of the CARE Team underscores this very point the same week when he stops a student cutting class. They're in the hallway alone. The young man is visibly angry. Cosey doesn't know why.

DAWAINE COSEY: He gets really, like, frustrated, and so I kind of, like, push him up against the wall and I'm like, yo, you got to calm down. This ain't going to work. You know, my voice is getting a little heavier. I'm like, this is not good for you. It's not good for us. You got to talk and so - and so, you know, he just kind of tagged me a little bit along the jaw (laughter).

TURNER: He punched you.

COSEY: Yeah, he punched me. You know, it was - it was a little punch. Like, I think responding to that in a way that was kind of punitive and became about me would have been selfish and like, oh, you hit me. Now, you got to - like, no. That's too much.

TURNER: Cosey gives the student a breather in the reflection room. Ten minutes later, the young man is willing to talk, and he admits to getting really agitated sometimes and just loses control. He feels badly about the punch. And so when it's clear to Cosey that the student is, A, no longer combative and, B, contrite, he lets him go back to class.

CARDOZA: Cory, I know teachers are going to be wondering, like, we work long hours, we get low pay, and then we're supposed to be OK with getting punched?

TURNER: Yeah, I agree. It - it's a lot, and it sounds like a lot. I want to say a couple things. Cosey kept this story to himself. He didn't really want to talk about it, and that was unusual for Cosey. And I think that's because even he knew it was extreme. He told the student in the moment if you'd have done this in some other school, you'd be in handcuffs.

CARDOZA: And I know some people might assume Cosey's doing this to protect the school, Cory. I mean, they've become the poster child for restorative justice, and part of that image means keeping their suspension numbers down, right?

TURNER: Yeah, and I totally understand that concern, too. It's valid. We saw reports earlier this year of other D.C. schools fudging their suspension numbers. That said, I don't think that's what happened here. Cosey is a deeply religious guy, and he sees his work at Ron Brown as a calling. He likes to quote Proverbs - *

TURNER: a gentle word turns away wrath. And that explains so much of what he does. For students who grew up around violence and anger, he says, his job is to show them the power of grace.

COSEY: This grace is going to be so strong, like, you're going to - it's going to hit you more than suspension would.

CARDOZA: At the end of this terrible week, it's clear - the CARE Team is being spread thin by a relatively small number of students, say 10 or 15, and Principal Ben Williams has noticed. He doesn't want to give up on anyone, but...

BENJAMIN WILLIAMS: This is a resource we don't have. Like, we can't do this every six weeks. You don't have the capacity. Your jobs entail too much to really single out one kid. And I told you all this from the very beginning. I will not - I will not sacrifice 105 young men for the sake of one.

TURNER: Williams seems worried, and he's right to be. In early December, I'm sitting with Mr. Greene during his free period chatting when one of his top students walks in and quietly says goodbye. Greene, one of his favorite teachers, lowers his head in disappointment.

GREENE: Why are you leaving? What happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: Keep it straight.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #18: I couldn't stand the school. Socially, there was just too many fights, just too many - too many people just trying to be like - trying to be like an alpha male for no reason.

CARDOZA: Outside, his mother, Alicia (ph), says she wants the best academically for her son. He got into the engineering academy at their neighborhood school, but it's clear she's holding back. Finally...

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 safe for 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.

TURNER: She says I can't worry about other kids. I have to worry about my child.

CARDOZA: And he's not the only top student who chooses to leave. Later, we asked Mr. Greene what he makes of all of this. He says no one should expect a school this young to be perfect.

GREENE: I try to show the merits of the school and why they should stay. And just because it's tough, you shouldn't cut and run, but sometimes it's easier to transfer than persevere.


TURNER: Chapter 5 - our last chapter for today. We'll call it The Party's Over. At long last, winter break arrives, and you can feel a palpable sense of relief in the building because of everything everyone has been through this semester.


UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #19: Break - we on break. We on break. We on break.

CARDOZA: Around this time, three of the school's most troubled students, including the one who punched a security guard, have transferred out. The turmoil of early November has passed, and a fragile new calm settles over the place.

TURNER: Academically, several teachers, including Gudger and Greene, say they see progress, and we see it, too. At the school's next honor roll assembly, there are more awards and more students getting them.

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

JUSTIN: Thanks, Mom.

TURNER: That's mother, Sierra (ph). Her only son is Justin, the king we heard earlier learning chess. Well, he's taken home five awards in this assembly.

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

SIERRA: A statistic.

JUSTIN: A statistic 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.

CARDOZA: Justin is consistently a top performer, but another king named Zion says Ron Brown really changed his view of school.

ZION: When I first got here, I wasn't the best student of all, but I totally improved 'cause I, like, actually started to feel accustomed. I was understanding the work, so I just started doing the work.

TURNER: Zion did really well in this honor roll assembly, and he credits Mr. Greene and the CARE Team, especially Cosey, for getting him on track.

CARDOZA: And Zion's not the only one. Socially and emotionally, the progress is pretty clear. Yes, a handful of students have put the school through the ringer, but the vast majority are now showing up.

TURNER: We want to end with one last quick story of a king named Amaru (ph). Now, that's not what everyone calls him. In agreeing to share his story, Amaru and his grandmother asked that we use his middle name.

CARDOZA: He's well behind most of his peers academically - a 17-year-old freshman in a school of 14 and 15 year olds.

TURNER: The CARE Team says that's because, before Ron Brown, he simply wasn't enrolled in formal schooling for several years.

CARDOZA: One morning at semester's end, he storms toward the office out of sorts.

AMARU: I guess I'm in a mood or something.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: OK. What happened?

AMARU: (Unintelligible) got to get a new tie.

TURNER: Amaru mumbles. Often, he answers questions with a simple brah (ph). Today, he's been sent to the office because his tie is in tatters, and he got into a disagreement with a teacher. At the front desk, Ms. Jackson, the fixer of all things, staples it back together.

CELESTINE JACKSON: Ta-da (laughter) like new, like new.

CARDOZA: It turns out today is also Amaru's birthday. The CARE Team says he's never had a party, so when they call him down to the counselor suite, the last thing he expects is Curtis, Cosey and the rest of the team waiting.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: Happy birthday, brah. Happy birthday.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you...

TURNER: Even Principal Williams turns up for a solo of Amaru's signature brah.

WILLIAMS: (Singing) Brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah, brah.

CARDOZA: The team even bought chips and dip and cookies. There's a card.

TURNER: Yeah, and that's after a really spirited debate about whether they should do this at all. Amaru has had chance after chance after chance to make better choices, but he keeps disrupting the school. So finally, the team agrees - one more try. And they go all out. They even make him blow out a candle.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: There you go.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: There it is.



TURNER: That's Curtis cheering. At some point, Amaru realizes the chairs behind his party are arranged in a circle. Wait, am I in trouble, he asks.

CARDOZA: No trouble, Curtis says, though it is time to circle up and talk about your future.

TURNER: Once they've moved to the circle, Curtis tells Amaru even if you stay on track for the next three and a half years, you're not going to graduate until you're 20. Can you make it that long?

CARDOZA: Amaru insists he won't drop out because here they show care.

AMARU: (Unintelligible) the school's OK and (unintelligible) since like they family, you know what I mean? Like, I don't want to be in no other school.

CARDOZA: When the team asks him what he wants to do after he graduates...

AMARU: Become a mechanical engineer.

CARDOZA: Become a mechanical engineer - you can feel the circle take a deep breath here because this young man is miles from a goal like that. Amaru's had to grow up fast but in some ways not at all.

TURNER: It's a tough circle premised on hard truths, and it may be the CARE Team's last best chance with him.

CURTIS: For you to be here like we want you to be, like you share you want to be, you got to work. You got to work real hard at being a leader, at slowing down.

TURNER: Amaru jumps in and whispers, if you want something, you got to work like you want it.

CARDOZA: And it's clear at this moment he wants to be here with these grown-ups, and it's easy to understand why. No matter the trouble he's caused or the classes he's missed, the school and its CARE Team keep caring.

TURNER: In the end, Curtis speaks for everyone when he tells Amaru...

CURTIS: We love you, man.


CURTIS: For real.

AMARU: I love you all, too.

CARDOZA: I love you all, too. It's hard to imagine Amaru saying this anywhere else to a roomful of grown men. Does that mean he's more likely to graduate? Will he make better choices?

TURNER: That's impossible to know. Is he better off than he was four months ago? Also impossible to know. The school thinks so.

CARDOZA: One thing's for sure - he'll always have these memories and a birthday card from the strangest of parties in which the CARE Team members have written things like...

TURNER: We're all rooting for you to do well.

CARDOZA: It's a blessing, another year. Keep growing. Keep pushing.

TURNER: We hope you know you are loved and appreciated for who you are.


CARDOZA: Finally, the circle ends. The CARE Team packs up.

TURNER: Before they go, though, Curtis tells Amaru, take the cookies with you. Take them all, he says. The party's over, and there's so much left to do. I'm Cory Turner with the NPR Ed team.

CARDOZA: And with Education Week, I'm Kavitha Cardoza.


MERAJI: In our final installment of Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep, teachers' high standards hit a brick wall when the assistant principal explains the district's grading policy. Here's math teacher Shaka Greene.

GREENE: Help me understand why we are enforcing a policy that doesn't make any sense. She said, that's policy. And I said, that's bullshit.

DEMBY: Is it OK to pass kids who failed most of the year, and are those same kids really on track to go to college?

MERAJI: We'll find out next week.

DEMBY: That's our show. If you're not already subscribed to our podcast, please do so now. Also we'd love to hear from you. So email us at codeswitch@npr.org or tweet at us. We're @NPRCodeSwitch.

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

DEMBY: And a shout-out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH fam. I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: And I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.