Like many of the 100 or so freshmen who enrolled last August at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, Zion Matthews had mixed feelings.
He'll freely admit, as will many of his classmates, that he ended up at the new, all-boys' school for one reason: his mother suggested — no, insisted — that he apply.
Ten months later, he concedes he is sold on the place, and he will tell you that girls "sort of like are the problem" in school. "It's too much commotion," he said recently. "It's too much extra stuff."
One of D.C.'s newest schools, Ron Brown is also its only single-sex public high school. Named after the first African-American U.S. Commerce Secretary, the school is part of D.C. Public Schools' "Empowering Males of Color" initiative. The effort seeks to help the city's young African-American and Hispanic men, a group that has struggled for years: In the 2014-15 school year, just 57% of black males in D.C. and 60% of Hispanic males graduated on time, compared with 87% of their white peers, according to district statistics.
Nearly a year into the effort — students and staff bristle at the word "experiment" — Ron Brown is ready for more. The school year ended last month with about 90% of its entering freshman class still enrolled and has opened up waiting lists for both the incoming freshman and returning sophomore classes. The school will add new classes each fall and is expected to graduate its first seniors in 2020.
A couple weeks ago, new teachers arrived to begin training for the fall.
While single-sex classrooms in public schools have waned in the U.S. over the past five years, the number of single-sex schools is growing, despite legal challenges. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) last year said the boys-only structure "raises significant legal and policy concerns," and that the district relied upon research that was "based on unproven and legally impermissible stereotypes."
Karl Racine, D.C.'s attorney general, has said the initiative is constitutional because its rationale — to address the educational deficiencies of D.C.'s most at-risk students — is "exceedingly persuasive," as required by the U.S. Supreme Court. He also said it doesn't undermine opportunities for minority female students.
District spokeswoman Michelle Lerner said she wasn't aware of any legal action surrounding the school.
Key to Ron Brown's success, staffers say, is an unusual approach to discipline and team-building, introduced to students before classes began last August, that all but prohibits out-of-school suspensions. So-called "restorative justice" offers victims the opportunity to confront classroom tormentors face-to-face.
If students get into a fight, for instance, they're not suspended, as in other D.C. schools. They must come together with others in their class, in a circle, and talk openly about how the conflict affected them. Even bystanders are expected to take part. Students name names and don't hold back.