New All-Boys School Opens In Washington, D.C. To Some Controversy
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Washington, D.C., on Monday morning, the boys who entered a brand-new high school looked like students at any one of the city's elite private academies - blue blazers, khaki pants, white shirts and purple-and-gold-striped ties. But Ron Brown Preparatory High School is public, and there are no girls. That last point has made the new school a little controversial with some in the city. Kaya Henderson is chancellor of D.C. Public Schools. The new school is a favorite project of hers, and she joins us now on the line. Good morning.
KAYA HENDERSON: Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, D.C. public schools do have some of the worst graduation rates of any district in the country, particularly with students of color. And all - I guess it's about 110 freshmen boys at this inaugural class are African-American or Latino. And, you know, in welcoming the class, the principal, Benjamin Williams, called them young kings, he called out. What does that say about what you're aiming to do here?
HENDERSON: Well, I think, you know, D.C. Public Schools has been a struggling school district that has been improving by leaps and bounds, including our graduation rates. But even as we see improvements across the district, we see a slower rate of change for African-American and Latino boys. And as we looked at the data, we decided that we needed to take a differentiated approach to moving outcomes for our young men at a much quicker rate. And as we saw them struggling academically, we decided that an all-boys school might be an appropriate solution to help them achieve in a much more quicker way.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's talk about some of the things that you're doing there at the school. I gather it practically bans suspensions, which is a punishment rather common in public schools.
HENDERSON: Well, our approach to dealing with discipline issues is really focused around restorative justice. And what we found is that suspension - sending a kid home because they do something wrong - doesn't actually address the root cause of the issue. But having the young person have to actually admit to what they've done and discuss and apologize and talk about how they're going to restore faith in the community with themselves, we found that to be really powerful at a number of our schools. So that's the approach that we're taking at Ron Brown.
MONTAGNE: And you called it restorative justice - known as.
MONTAGNE: You know, why would this all-boys school be better than a similar public prep school that included girls? I mean, given that there have been other such all-male schools in other cities and all-girl schools, is there proof that this separating of the sexes works?
HENDERSON: Well, I mean, I think that, you know, there are lots of open questions about single-sex education. But when you look at some of the most well-resourced families in the country, many of them choose single-sex education. And we want to make that kind of option available to all of our families. We have an all-girls charter school here in Washington, D.C., that hasn't attracted any attention. But I find it interesting that when we created an all-boys school, there seems to be all of this controversy.
Let me give you a quick example. I have a very good friend whose son matriculated into our - one of our college preparatory high schools here in the city, and he transferred out after his freshman year. And, you know, when I asked him why, he said there are just too many girls. At one of our top college prep high schools, it's 80 percent women, and he didn't feel comfortable. He's a smart guy. He didn't feel comfortable. He didn't feel affirmed. He didn't feel like he could be successful in that situation.
And so I think providing our young men with a space where they are reinforced not just as scholars, but their character is built and their manhood is developed, I think is an important way to do something differently. If we're going to get different results from our young men, we have to try different strategies, and this is one that we think is well worth it, and so do 110 families in the district who have packed the school this first year.
MONTAGNE: Well, let me, though, get back to that. The ACLU is one of the critics of this new school. It issued a report in the spring called Leaving Girls Behind, saying that D.C. Public Schools make a mistake by putting in - and this is a $20 million initiative, I gather, this new school. Is the charter school for girls, say - is there - has there been less put into it? Is that it?
HENDERSON: No. I mean, in fact, I think the $20 million is what we've committed to an empowering-males-of-color strategy that includes the school. It includes training our teachers to disabuse them of bias around young men. It includes a grants program for our schools to innovate around new strategies to reach our boys. It also includes a tutoring program for our elementary school young men who are struggling. So there's an entire district-wide initiative, and I think that that has attracted attention.
But just because it's attracted attention, it doesn't mean that it's not the right thing to do. We know that one size does not fit all. And if we're going to ensure that our young men have the best chance possible to be successful, we have to differentiate our strategies. As we look at our data, we see that our young women have different challenges, and so we're trying to develop a set of strategies that will specifically address young women strategies. And we think that that's actually appropriate.
MONTAGNE: Well, thank you very much for joining us.
HENDERSON: Thank you for having me.
MONTAGNE: Kaya Henderson is the chancellor of D.C. Public Schools, where Ron Brown Preparatory High School - an all-boy public school - opened this week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.