The Challenges of ‘Raising Kings': A Return to Ron Brown College Prep

By Kavitha Cardoza — November 07, 2018 3 min read
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Two years ago, Education Week and NPR spent hundreds of hours at Ron Brown College Prep, a public high school in the District of Columbia that was designed specifically for young men of color. Most of the teachers were also black men, determined to help students navigate steep academic challenges in the classroom and personal trauma outside of school.

For that inaugural, freshman class of 105 teenagers, Ron Brown High was unique in the nation’s capital.

It has an entire team of counselors and social workers, known as the CARE Team, dedicated to students’ social-emotional development. Instead of suspensions, they focus on restorative justice; students, teachers, counselors and even parents literally sit in circles to talk about the harm done to the school community when students act out and how to repair the trust that is lost. It’s hard, exhausting work. The school is also unique in that it has a faculty and staff of mostly African-Americans and follows a culturally responsive curriculum. NPR’s Cory Turner and I documented the first school year in a four-part podcast on NPR’s Code Switch, chronicling the experiences of some of the students and their families, and all the ways their teachers, administrators, and the CARE team were working to support them academically and emotionally.

The “kings,” as they students are called, are now in their third year at Ron Brown. They are taller, their voices deeper, and they are juniors.

The school has expanded this year to accommodate sophomores and freshman along with the Class of 2020. The school is well-resourced, and the building is beautiful, but despite significant resources and all their best efforts, challenges remain. The number of students doubled, while the size of the CARE Team remained the same, Principal Ben Williams said, leaving everyone stretched thin.

Several students from the original class are thriving. Students met former President Barack Obama and civil rights icon John Lewis. Many also had other opportunities. For example, Mamut studied bio-technology over the summer at UC, Berkeley. Stephon is thrilled to be playing varsity football for the school. Rashawn, a student who was never interested in school before Ron Brown, took a school-sponsored trip to Guatemala. “The kids there, I connected with them. Seeing their struggle, I struggled a lot too and seeing that... I cried. It did something to me.” Rashawn was so moved by his experience, he has started raising money to pay for their schooling.

The school also has an 85 percent attendance rate, far higher than other high schools in the area.

But roughly 40 of the original 105 students have left the school. Some are gone because they got into more-selective D.C. schools; One student, you may remember from the original podcast, “D”, is incarcerated in Baltimore for “possessing and discharging” a firearm.

On the academic side, according to the latest PARCC scores, the school improved from 11 to 14 percent on reading proficiency. In math, just 1 percent of 10th graders were proficient this year. The school’s administration emphasizes that the average student came to Ron Brown at a 5th grade level, so even if students improved (which they say students have), that progress would not show up on the PARCC, which gauges 10th grade skills. The school now holds regular Saturday classes and has hired additional special education teachers.

We checked in with dozens of students, parents, teachers, and staff members—past and present—about how the school has changed since the initial series, “Raising Kings,” aired, and revisit some of the series’ big questions in this conversation with Code Switch host Gene Demby.

Listen to the original podcast series, and view a photo gallery and video interviews here.

Photo: All the students are known as “kings” at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School in the District of Columbia --Jared Soares for Education Week-file

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.