This weekend I learned about a very compelling new school in our country's capital: Ron Brown College Preparatory School in Washington, D.C. As a entrepreneurial venture by the public school system, Ron Brown welcomed its first class of 100 young men in the Fall of 2016. This year, they have brought in another freshman class of a little over 100 "kings" (they don't call them students).
"Now is the accepted time, not tomorrow,
not some more convenient season"
-W.E.B. Du Bois
(from their website)
The school principal is Dr. Benjamin Williams an articulate, driven educator and administrator with boundless energy and unshakeable belief in the greatness within students. Williams earned many accolades as the Associate Principal of another innovative educational institution, the School Without Walls, where among other accomplishments he developed a college preparatory curriculum for middle-school students. Williams describes Ron Brown as a dream job and an opportunity he has longed for his whole career.
Ron Brown is the only single-sex public high school in D.C. and is named after the country's first African-American U.S. Commerce Secretary. These two distinctions point to the high expectations and bold aspirations for the school to forever reshape educational outcomes for young African-American males. According to USA Today, in the 2014-15 school year, 87% of white students graduated on time compared to just 57% of black males and 60% of Hispanic males. Just 16% of African American eighth graders have achieved proficiency in reading and 13% in math (2015 National Assessment of Educational Progress) and outside of school, African-American young men are three times as likely to die from police use of force (CNN). Ron Brown was created to stand up to these trends and turn them around.
It begins with a new kind of school and new kind of school culture. The "kings" all wear a uniform (suit and tie), the day starts in a big circle for 30 minutes where part of the time is spent with "shout outs" with compliments being shared among the group, and "restorative justice" replaces detentions. The work is grueling but rewarding. Williams, the teachers and support staff are incredibly committed to the vision of reversing the fortunes of the "kings" in training. There are still fights, swearing, and conflicts but also breathtaking breakthroughs of the human spirit as well as academic achievement.
It is a grand experiment. It is an educational venture launched, as all new ventures, into an uncertain future.
There are many sources of inspiration and lessons from Ron Brown. Here are five lessons:
Expect greatness: I am reminded of Goethe's observation that “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be." They have taken this to heart at Ron Brown and expect greatness out of each student, calling them "kings" is perhaps the most poignant expression of this commitment.
Flip the Story: Williams and his staff talk about "changing the narrative" for African-American young men. They face down conventional wisdom that suggest harsh treatment and punishment is the path to the reform of the human person. And there are no educational proficiency exams for admittance into the school. Instead they talk about love and restorative justice and calling greatness out of young men who many (including family) may have abandoned.
Credibility is fuel of great leadership: Williams himself grew up with a drug addict mother and adversity many could hardly imagine, except those enrolled at Ron Brown. They know exactly what he has been through. And he knows what they face, within themselves and around themselves. There is no replacement for this alignment between leader and follower. Williams has profound credibility with his students and his staff.
Success is what is left when failure burns itself out: the school is trying a wide variety of novel approaches to teaching, discipline, family engagement. Some will work in the near term. Some will work in the long term and appear to "fail" in the moment. And some won't work at all. Williams is creating a culture of educational experimenters, mad scientists whose elements are not chemicals and the elements but hearts, minds, souls, histories, math, english, and hope. Keep running experiments and see what works.
Innovation can take place within the public school system. Hello!? Let me remind you that Ron Brown is not a private school. Ron Brown flies in the face of the notion that innovation only happens in the private sector or in Silicon Valley or at a small start-up somewhere.
Think in systems, in this case, the family system. It is common to see solutions which act like the proverbial foot stomping on a bump in the carpet. You flatten this section only to see the bump appear over there. You jump on that. There it is over there now. And on and on. Williams and his team recognize that education involves a whole ecosystem of players, influences, resources, structures, policies, and realities. For example, they focus not just on the student but also his family system which ranges from dual-parent homes to the majority which come from single family homes or home where they are raised by a relative.
Ron Brown student Zion Matthews (Photo: Jasper Colt, USA TODAY)