New boys’ school opens in Washington, DC to some controversy: NPR


The school opened its doors with great fanfare and some criticism. Critics like the ACLU say the school is discriminatory. Renee Montagne speaks with Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of DC Public Schools.


In Washington, DC on Monday morning, the boys who entered a brand new high school looked like students at one of the city’s elite private academies – blue blazers, khaki pants, white shirts and purple striped ties and golden. But Ron Brown Preparatory High School is public and there are no girls. This last point has made the new school a bit controversial with some in the city. Kaya Henderson is Chancellor of DC Public Schools. The new school is one of her favorite projects, and she is now joining us online. Hello.


MOUNTAIN: Now, DC public schools have some of the worst graduation rates of any district in the country, especially with students of color. And all of them – I’m guessing it’s about 110 grade one boys in this inaugural class are African American or Latino. And, you know, welcoming the class, the principal, Benjamin Williams, called them young kings, he shouted. What does this say about what you intend to do here?

HENDERSON: Well, I think, you know, DC public schools have been a struggling school district that has improved in leaps and bounds, including our graduation rates. But even though we’re seeing improvements across the district, we’re seeing a slower rate of change for African American and Latino boys. And looking at the data, we decided we needed to take a differentiated approach to evolving outcomes for our young men at a much faster rate. And since we saw them struggling academically, we decided that a boys-only school might be an appropriate solution to help them succeed much faster.

MOUNTAIN: Well, let’s talk about some of the things you do over there in school. I guess he practically prohibits suspensions, which is a pretty common punishment in public schools.

HENDERSON: Well, our approach to dealing with disciplinary matters is really restorative justice. And what we found is that the suspension – sending a child home for doing something wrong – doesn’t actually address the root cause of the problem. But the fact that the youngster actually has to admit what he did and discuss and apologize and talk about how he is going to restore trust in the community with himself, we found that was really powerful in a number of our schools. So that’s the approach we take at Ron Brown.

MONTAGNE: And you called it restorative justice.


MOUNTAIN: You know, why would this boys-only school be better than a similar public prep school that included girls? I mean, given that there have been other male-only schools in other cities and girls-only schools, is there any evidence that this gender separation is working?

HENDERSON: Well, I mean, I think, you know, there’s a lot of open ended questions about single-sex education. But when you look at some of the richest families in the country, many of them choose a single-sex education. And we want to make that kind of option available to all of our families. We have a charter school for girls here in Washington, DC that hasn’t attracted any attention. But I find it interesting that when we started a boys’ school there seemed to be all this controversy.

Let me give you a quick example. I have a very good friend whose son went to our – one of our preparatory high schools here in town, and he transferred after his freshman year. And, you know, when I asked him why, he said there were just too many girls. In one of our best college prep high schools, it’s 80 percent female, and he didn’t feel comfortable. He’s a smart guy. He didn’t feel comfortable. He didn’t feel assertive. He didn’t feel capable of succeeding in this situation.

And so I think providing our young men with a space where they’re not only empowered as scholars but their character is built and their manhood is developed, I think that’s an important way to do something differently. If we are to get different results from our young men, we have to try different strategies, and this one is worth it, as are 110 families in the district who filled the school this first year.

MOUNTAIN: Well, let me come back to that. The ACLU is one of the detractors of this new school. He released a report in the spring called Leaving Girls Behind, saying DC public schools are making a mistake in creating – and it’s a $ 20 million initiative, I guess, this new school. Is the charter school for girls, let’s say – is there – has there been less work? Is that right?

HENDERSON: No. I mean, actually, I think the $ 20 million is what we embarked on in a colored male empowerment strategy that includes school. This includes training our teachers to disabuse them of prejudices against young men. It includes a grant program that allows our schools to innovate around new strategies to reach our boys. It also includes a tutoring program for our struggling young men in elementary school. So there is a whole district-wide initiative, and I think that has garnered some attention.

But just because it got attention doesn’t mean it’s the wrong thing to do. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. And if we are to ensure that our young men have the best chance of success, we need to differentiate our strategies. Looking at our data, we see that our young women have different challenges, and therefore we are trying to develop a set of strategies that will specifically address the strategies of young women. And we think that’s actually appropriate.

MOUNTAIN: Well, thank you very much for joining us.

HENDERSON: Thanks for inviting me.

MOUNTAIN: Kaya Henderson is Chancellor of DC Public Schools, where Ron Brown Preparatory High School – a boys-only public school – opened this week.

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