When I walked into a sophomore mathematics class at Ron Brown College Preparatory, an innovative high school in Washington DC that serves male students of color, the students were sitting at desks arranged in a circle, deep in conversation, and engaged in their lesson. Projected on the whiteboard was a bar chart of college enrollment statistics in the United States, broken down by race.
The teacher was walking around the classroom, asking probing questions, and checking for understanding. She called on one student to explain what the information on the bar chart conveyed. The student explained that the data illustrated that, out of all races, African-Americans had the lowest college enrollment rates in the United States.
All of the students in the classroom were African-American.
“How does this make you feel?” the teacher asked.
The “Kings”—which is how students are referred to at Ron Brown—turned to a partner and began discussing the teacher’s question. Wanting to know what the students thought, I walked over to one student, introduced myself, asked his name, and inquired about the prompt. He explained that this data upset him because he wants to go to college. He paused and then said with conviction, “I know I am smart and I know I will go to college.”
I told him that I have no doubt he will.
Ron Brown High School: Designed to Meet the Needs of Their Students
Ron Brown College Preparatory, named after the first African-American U.S. Commerce Secretary, opened its doors in August 2016 to 110 freshmen as part of DC Public Schools’ twenty million dollar “Empowering Males of Color” initiative.
The primary purpose of the school is to serve the city’s young African-American and Latino men, two groups who have historically struggled in the district. During the 2014-15 academic year, only 57 percent of African-American males and 60 percent of Latino males graduated on time in DC, as compared to 87 percent of their white peers. Further, for years DC has experienced persistent and unchanging achievement gaps between their students of color and white students.
These statistics, while disappointing and unacceptable, are not surprising. Disproportionate suspension and expulsion rates, and achievement gaps between students of color and white students has been, for many states, a pervasive and enduring issue.
At EE, we have long advocated that if we want an equitable, high-quality, and rigorous education system then learning must be designed with students at the center. That is, learning must be personalized to students’ unique needs, interests, identities, and aspirations—and designed with their ideas and voices at the table.
That is just what educators at Ron Brown have done—intentionally designed a school that is purposeful about meeting the individual needs of the students they serve. According to Ron Brown’s founding principal, Dr. Benjamin Williams, “We’re building [a school] where they feel loved, they feel like it’s a safe space. They feel like it’s a place where they can take chances, and where they can grow.”
Solutions Not Suspensions: How Ron Brown Uses Restorative Practices
According to the Ron Brown staff, one of their keys to success is their use of “restorative practices,” which provides students with the opportunity to work out problems with one another and come to a solution, instead of suspending them.
For example, if two students get into a fight, they’re not suspended, as in other DC schools. Rather, they must come together, in a circle, with others in their class and talk honestly about the impact that conflict had on them.
The results of these restorative practices are evident. During the 2016-17 academic year, Ron Brown’s first year of operation, they issued only six suspensions, far below district averages. Four of the suspensions were given to just two students and were mandated under district policy regarding incidents involving drugs or weapons in the school building.
According to Dr. Williams, most of the students “have really bought into the idea that suspension is not a consequence for behavior, that they’re going to have to take ownership at some point.”
Breaking Down Stereotypes: Positive Identity Development
In addition to the restorative nature of the circles, they can also serve as a catalyst for positive identity development. Reflecting on the use of circles at the end of the first school year, Dr. Charles Curtis, the school’s psychologist and one of its founders, indicated that he is more devoted to the technique than ever, because the identity development of young black men is “marred with expectations of criminality, expectations of pathology, expectations of aggression and hyper-sexuality — and all kinds of other stuff that people impose on them.”
But in these circles, the students are able to break down those stereotypes and confide in their peers. They talk about family difficulties, like losing parents or family members, issues at home, and so on.
The curriculum at Ron Brown is also culturally responsive and relevant. In a 2017 NPR podcast on Ron Brown, the English Teacher, Ms. G, had her students read and discuss “The Bluest Eye” by Toni Morrison. In the podcast, Ms. G. and the students are having a deep discussion on internalized racism and the role of traditional public education in perpetuating the students’ negative stereotypes about themselves. Ms. G. pushes the students to dig deeper into topics and gives them the space to speak freely. For another assignment, Ms. G. had her students read Romeo and Juliet and then, if they wanted to, had them rewrite it to be relevant to their lives.
Positive Relationships with Teachers of Color
At the core of executing the curriculum and restorative practices are the adults who work at Ron Brown, all of whom genuinely care about and are fiercely dedicated to their students. They regularly inquire about the students’ families and talk to them about their futures. They recognize students for their accomplishments, speak honestly with them when they make mistakes, and also create space for them to have authentic conversations about issues that are relevant to their lives.
Another important component of Ron Brown is the CARE Team, a group of 6 staff members, mostly African-American men, which includes a psychologist, social worker, and several counselors. These leaders are charged with keeping students on track emotionally and academically by getting to know the students’ strengths and weaknesses, who has a short fuse, who’s living on a friend’s couch, who spent the night in jail, etc.
Importantly, almost 100 percent of the teachers and staff at Ron Brown look like the students they serve. This is significant because research has found that students of color benefit from having teachers who share their racial and ethnic identity. Specifically, teachers of color “can be more motivated to work with students of color in high poverty, racially and ethnically segregated schools” and have higher academic expectations for students of color.
Personal Reflections on Ron Brown Visit
Being at Ron Brown reminded me of my own tenure as a special education teacher in the Calumet Heights neighborhood in the far southside of Chicago. My students, mostly male and African-American, were amazing and intelligent individuals who had been failed by an outdated education system. They had been told by standardized test after standardized test that they “didn’t meet standards,” were suspended at shameful rates, had lost several friends and family members to gun violence, and the list goes on.
And even though we, my students and I, worked together to create relevant, engaging, and high-quality lessons that led to most of them making over four years’ growth in two years, writing letters to the mayor on gun violence, and completing incredible projects on social justice and race in the United States, it didn’t change the system as a whole. They still had word finds in history class, watched too many movies in English, and didn’t receive the proper social-emotional supports for the trauma they had and still too frequently experienced.
I spent so much of my time as a teacher wishing we could completely redo our school so that, from the very first decision, it was designed with my students’ needs at the center. I wanted them to have an education that was culturally relevant, engaging, high-quality, equitable, met their “whole needs”, and included their voices. This desire led to me to make a career change to education policy and then to EE. I’m proud to be part of an organization that works every day with, and not upon, teachers, students, and families to advance student-centered learning so that one day the experience that the Kings have at Ron Brown will be a reality for all students in Minnesota and across the country.