At 8:45 one recent Monday morning at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, the freshman class sat in a giant rectangle in the school’s brightly lighted meeting area. After some preliminary remarks, one student stood up to thank a teacher for extra help she provided to struggling readers. A teacher rose to laud five students for high marks on a recent test. Another classmate was complimented for leadership in the Boy Scouts.
This period of reflection, affirmation and exhortation is how every day begins at Ron Brown, the District’s only single-sex public high school, one of just a few dozen in the country. Some exchanges are lighthearted and funny, but just as often they tap into deeper territory.
Students have used the session to talk about walking away from a fight, dealing with problems at home, losing a friend to violence.
“These young men are able to focus on uplifting each other,” said Ben Williams, the school’s 36-year-old principal. “We’ve created a safe space to do things that most young men don’t, regardless of race, which is express emotion, express feelings, express pain. And they’re willing to take those risks without the feeling of being judged.”
Ron Brown is in the middle of its first year. The opening day jitters are gone. The fear of the unknown has dissipated. And the 100 students — the school began with only freshmen — have become as accustomed to the rituals of learning, sharing and growing in this new environment as they have to tying the purple-and-gold neckties they are required to wear every day.
Elijah Farrier takes a bus and two Metrorail lines every morning from his home in Southeast Washington to the school on Meade Street NE, a commute that can take two hours. All worth it, the 15-year-old said.
“The school has been great,” said Farrier, a broad smile crossing his face. “I feel like I’m making history here.”
Farrier admits he wasn’t thrilled about going to an all-boys school at first and wasn’t interested in wearing the coat-and-tie uniform. But a girl on the Metro told Farrier he looked good in the uniform, and that changed his outlook. His mother also set him straight.
“My mom said: ‘You need to hold off on the girls for a bit. High school is when you have to take things seriously,’ ” he said. “I really do miss having girls in school, but I’m able to focus. I guess my time will come.”
Jaiden Fisher, 15, is another student who says it took some time before the absence of females in class felt normal. Now he has adjusted.
“The school has shown me that there is just so much more in life, and I’m starting to think about who I can become,” Fisher said. “Here you can show who you are. There’s not a lot of trying to impress or trying to be who you’re not.”
Located in the Deanwood neighborhood, Ron Brown was a pet project of former D.C. schools chancellor Kaya Henderson. In 2015, Henderson targeted $20 million in funding toward black and Latino boys and young men, who make up 43 percent of students in the D.C. Public Schools system and whose academic achievements often trail those of other groups. According to a 2015 report by the Schott Foundation for Public Education, the national graduation rate for black males was 59 percent. It was 65 percent for Latino males and 80 percent for white males.