At Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, Students Are Kings, Not Kids

Oct 18, 2017
Originally published on October 18, 2017 4:48 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We have the story now of a radical new school in Washington, D.C., Ron Brown College Preparatory High School. It's an all-boys public school designed for young men of color with a staff of mostly black men. And that staff is passionately opposed to suspending students.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nationwide, African-American students are suspended at nearly 4 times the rate of white students. But there's no evidence that differences in behavior explain that disparity. And students who are suspended are less likely to graduate and more likely to end up in prison.

SHAPIRO: Last year, in a joint effort between NPR and Education Week, reporters Cory Turner and Kavitha Cardoza spent hundreds of hours at Ron Brown to witness the birth of this new school. Today we're going to hear the beginning of their reporting on what makes Ron Brown so different. And a quick warning that the story contains language some listeners may find offensive.

KAVITHA CARDOZA, BYLINE: In the early days at Ron Brown, Dawaine Cosey spends a lot of time just trying to get students to follow the dress code.

DAWAINE COSEY: Amir, tuck that shirt. Tuck that shirt. Tuck that shirt.

CARDOZA: Cosey's a member of the school's unique care team, a group of half a dozen mostly men, a psychologist, social worker, counsellors who are dedicated to keeping the roughly 100 freshmen on track.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: Cosey says the school's uniform, a blazer and tie, is one way of getting students used to structure and high expectations, two things he says many of them don't get at home.

CARDOZA: Cosey's approach to the students boils down to one word.

COSEY: I tell the guys here all the time, like, you're going to get love, and there's really nothing you can do about it.

CARDOZA: But that doesn't mean he's a pushover.

COSEY: When your stuff stinks, I'm going to tell you it stinks - when your attitude is funky, when you're wrong. Like, all of this - this is love.

TURNER: At one point, a student wanders in half an hour late.

COSEY: Man, oh, man, look at what time it is.

TURNER: But Cosey doesn't write him up. Instead, he gives him a hug.

COSEY: Look at you. Come here. Come here. I'm excited. That's good right there. That's good. All right, get that tie on, all right?

TURNER: Cosey knows the young man has a lot on his plate. He has to get his little sister to school on the train. And today, he's earlier than he's ever been in part because Cosey's been working with him on a morning plan.

CARDOZA: Too often, Cosey says, schools simply punish students' behavior without asking, why do you behave this way?

COSEY: They have a reason. Like, ask them why. That's how you fix things.

CARDOZA: Sometimes the answer is just adolescence. Beneath that, though, are the challenges that many urban schools face.

TURNER: Poverty, homelessness, students moving around a lot. Some have experienced violence and trauma.

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

TURNER: Kaya Henderson is former head of D.C. Public Schools and a driving force behind Ron Brown College Prep. For her, the school was a labor of love and urgency.

HENDERSON: The world is telling you that black men are dangerous. The world is telling you that black and Latino men are lazy. The world is telling you that they leave their families. And you know, we have to counter that narrative.

TURNER: The school does that in part with its focus on love and talk. If you can't keep up in class or had a fight with your mother the night before, you need to tell somebody.

CARDOZA: And it's not just the CARE Team spreading this message. The teachers do, too.

SHAKA GREENE: We ask deliberately. How are you feeling today? Tell me what you're thinking.

CARDOZA: Shaka Greene teaches math at Ron Brown.

GREENE: These young men are able to discuss their feelings in a way that just is not socially acceptable. Men don't cry. Men are tough, where we say just the opposite.

TURNER: But sometimes when 14 year old boys do talk, it can sound threatening. Here's Shatane Porter, a counselor on the CARE Team, training Ron Brown teachers early on.

SHATANE PORTER: If I'm having a bad day - I haven't eaten, somebody got shot - school is a safe zone for me. So this should be a place that I should be able to come and express my thoughts. I may - having a bad day. I may come in, and I'll be like, [expletive].

CARDOZA: The teachers in the room jump.

PORTER: This may be actually a sign of respect and trust that I can cuss in your class and say to you, I'm having a bad day - not [expletive] you, just [expletive].

CARDOZA: The school believes this kind of listening and flexibility will ultimately keep students on track academically.

TURNER: It's an investment. The easiest thing for a teacher is simply to kick a disruptive kid out of class, out of school, out even though research shows that's the last thing that student needs.

CARDOZA: Many of the school's incoming freshmen say suspensions were common in their old schools. Here's one student named Rashawn.

RASHAWN: I didn't really go to school.

CARDOZA: What do you mean?

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

CARDOZA: We hear this from a lot of students. They say their middle school teachers didn't care about them or their classes. For others, the work was too hard or too boring, so many tried to get kicked out.

TURNER: In September, Cosey says this is happening at Ron Brown, too. But when students are told, we love you and, no, you're not getting kicked out of here...

COSEY: They're like, is this real? Why y'all won't send me home - because we can just talk about it, and y'all will be fine.

TURNER: One day in October, Cosey's called to the art room. One student has punched another in the face. We're not using their names to protect their privacy. Cosey walks them both to something called the reflection room.

COSEY: So yes, technically, in an hour, you can go outside. You go sit in front of my desk.

TURNER: Here, the school practices something known as restorative justice. Instead of being suspended or pushed out, rule breakers are pulled into a circle. And again, the goal here is not to punish the punch but to find out why it happened and to keep it from happening again.

COSEY: Now, listen. I'm going to get what he said from him, and then I'm going to resume with you.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: All right.

COSEY: OK. You don't respond to him.

CARDOZA: It turns out these two students have been at each other for a while. Even with Cosey mediating, they go at it again.

COSEY: Are we done?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah, you ran away, ran behind Mr. Sellars like a little punk.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Unintelligible) I ain't run behind Mr. Sellars.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yes, you did. Yes, you did. I'm glad you did.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: (Unintelligible).

COSEY: Hello. Hello.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: What?

COSEY: This is my space, and you not going to disrespect me or my space. So when you hear me talk, you are not talking. You are civil enough to have a conversation.

CARDOZA: But at this point in the school year, they're not.

COSEY: Somebody out there is going to say something to you, and so - since you're so prideful, you're going to do something in your pride that's going to end up getting you killed or hurt. So what you need to do is make conscious decisions of what you can do to remove yourself from situations instead of making situations worse.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I heard you. You keep saying...

COSEY: And I'm going to keep saying it. You - OK, so here's what I need you to understand. Your telling me you hear me is not going to shut me up.

TURNER: This is as forceful as Cosey gets, but he's still not getting through to them.

CARDOZA: He finally calls the boy's parents, and the day goes from bad to worse. One father tells him enough with the circle stuff. If the school's going to be a safe space, it needs real consequences.

TURNER: And this is the early story at Ron Brown. Restorative justice only works if students are open to it. But none of this surprises or even disheartens Cosey.

COSEY: Who plants a seed today and expects to harvest tomorrow? Like, I don't. It's going to be long especially because most - for most of the students, were still tilling up the soil.

TURNER: Week after week, month after month, student after student, the harvest does come, even with the young man we met earlier, Rashawn.

RASHAWN: I didn't really go to school.

CARDOZA: What do you mean?

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

CARDOZA: But that was a year ago. At the start of this year, Ron Brown creates a junior CARE Team of returning sophomores who can help the next class of freshmen work through problems. One of the first students chosen is Rashawn.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SHAPIRO: That was recording from Kavitha Cardoza of Education Week and Cory Turner of the NPR Ed team. Their project is called Raising Kings. You can hear more on the NPR podcast Code Switch. You can also see a video of the school's staff at edweek.org/raisingkings.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.