Benjamin Williams grew up tough. He had behavioral issues, struggled in school and consequently skidded toward an uncertain future.
But once Williams, a child of foster care, realized education as a means toward a better life, things changed — so much so that when he made up his mind to get on the straight and narrow, it led to him to bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees from the University of Virginia.
“I had a very difficult early part of my life,” recalled Williams, 37. “And my brother (who was killed while Williams was in college) struggled throughout his life, so I’d envisioned the creation of a school where young people like myself and my little brother could [embrace] as a safe place for our challenges and to be able to learn from our failures.”
However, Williams never thought the opportunity to actually lead such a facility would come so quickly in his career.
Fast-forward to 2015, when Williams heard about the opening for the lead position at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School for Boys — D.C.’s first and only all-male academic facility which aims to uplift young Black boys and raise their graduation rates.
Seizing the opportunity to give back, Williams saw his life come full-circle.
“It was also a good fit,” he said, noting that his troublesome upbringing had a lot to do with his accepting the post.
“I wanted to put my name into the hat and see if I’d be able to procure the position,” Williams said of his interest the planning principal’s job at the school, located in D.C.’s Deanwood community.
The school, named for the late Brown, who served as secretary of state during the Clinton administration, recently celebrated its first anniversary, having served about 100 ninth-graders last year.
About 96 percent of its students come from Wards 7 and 8, two of the District’s most impoverished areas.
Reports stated that prior to 2015, the District had failed “miserably” at educating Black and Hispanic boys, whose on-time graduation hovered respectively at 48 percent and 57 percent, compared to their White counterparts whose rates stood at 82 percent.
Yet, “we now have young men who are embracing school, young men for the most part who were in opposition to attending classes, or who were doing everything in their power to get kicked out of the school,” Williams said.
Ron Brown is among schools nationwide that adhere to the tenets of former President Barack Obama’s “Empowering Males of Color” initiative, which aims to improve employment and educational opportunities for minority males and receives about $20 million in funding from private sources in D.C. alone.
To that end, Williams takes pride in the fact that 90 percent of his students last year were promoted to the 10th grade.
“Just seeing our young men in the building, engaged in their work and wanting to be here as we provide more rigorous instructional opportunities for them, makes me say that I’m proud of how we grew over the course of one year,” Williams said of the school, which currently enrolls grades nine and 10 and plans to ultimately expand to the 11th and 12th grades by 2020.
As for test scores, Williams said that his students have improved overall in reading and math.
“However, we don’t have any trend data to be able to make a firm statement of where our academic standards are moving,” he said. “Because we’ve only been in operation for one year, I can’t really [determine] what growth currently looks like in our school.”
Williams refuted reports attributing him with saying that the school’s academics have been sacrificed.
“At no point did I make a statement that our academics were being sacrificed for anything,” he said. “Instead, we said that social-emotional learning and academic expectations have to go hand in hand. The majority of our young men are coming from inner-city environments, and in order to change our narrative we have to maintain our academic expectations, recognizing that the young men coming into the building with so many other layers that they have to unpack before they can be functional in the classroom.
“That’s where we have to differentiate our cultural practices as well as our functional practices to make sure that our young men are successful,” Williams said. “We have to recognize the traumatic experiences they seen home on a daily basis and try to get them to understand advocacy for self, and being empowered to speak.”
Many other same-sex public schools have yet to succeed, however, and Ron Brown, which had a wait-list for the current term, also still faces an uphill battle to help its students defy the odds.
While Williams admitted that the full-lottery, citywide school has neither academic nor behavior criteria, he encourages any male student in D.C. who’s a rising ninth-grader to apply for enrollment.
The school, where all of 205 of its students are referred to as “kings,” also boasts a “restorative justice circle” that includes a school psychologist, social worker and counselors.
The psychologist, Charles Curtis, who also serves as the school’s administrator for culture and restorative efforts, believes it’s a good addition to the DCPS system because it highlights the need for revamping the way discipline, behavior and culture are conceptualized in school buildings across the board.
“We’ve been allowed to be very purposeful about making sure that we really disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline, and as a result, have created a space where love is an overt and intentional phenomenon at the school,” said Curtis, 36.
Boasting a faculty of about 65 percent Black male teachers, the school’s biggest challenge so far is meeting its own expectations of accountability in a highly-intense work environment, Curtis said.
“So, we’re really having to shift and do different than the norms that the kings we serve have become accustomed to,” he said. “I think that students believe that when we [use a softer] approach to discipline as opposed to a punitive approach, they think there are no consequences and they can do whatever they want.
“But the truth is we have more consequences for [unacceptable] behavior than at any school I’ve worked,” Curtis said. “If a student makes a mistake in class, they don’t get to avoid the teacher by going to straight to suspension, they actually have to face the teacher and rectify the harm they created. That’s also love, and it helps students understand what’s expected of them.
Besides, Curtis said, “we have more Black male teachers here per student, so when one of our students has a difficult experience or has been out of bounds with a teacher, they literally have to sit in a circle of Black men to talk about it.”
Patricia Odom, a 12-year educator who serves as an assistant principal for the school’s 9th-grade academy, began last year as an intervention coordinator. In her previous role, she identified at-risk students using early-warning indicators to put proper interventions in place.
During that time, Odom also designed intervention programs based on students’ needs related to their study habits and the transition from middle school to high school.
“Some of the students had been accustomed to being promoted without completing their course work,” she said. “Part of my impact was in making them aware of how academics work in high school, what credit recovery looks like and trying to get them on the right track prior to the end of the school year so they wouldn’t have to attend summer school.”
Odom said her success is partly due to having worked closely with school counselors to review student schedules and plan interventions.
As a result, “we were able to promote a little over 90 percent of our 9th-graders, [who] went on to the 10th grade without having to attend summer school.”
Odom said the fact that 97 percent of students returned this year is indicative of the school’s strong parent base.
“This year, our 9th-graders have a very different attitude about the school because they chose to come here, as opposed to schools most of their parents had enrolled them in against their will,” she said. “Our students take ownership in their school and are proud of it, [which] speaks volumes [about the school’s] success.”