“They can’t just be average.”
Charles Curtis is talking about the roughly 100 young, black men in the inaugural freshman class at Ron Brown College Prep, a radical new high school in Washington, D.C.
Curtis, the school psychologist, puts it simply: “There is no place in the world for an average black person.”
So begins Part 2 in our series: Raising Kings: A Year of Love and Struggle at Ron Brown College Prep.
The school is devoted to restorative justice, forcing students into uncomfortable conversations and face-to-face apologies instead of suspension or detention.
There’s also a high-expectations approach to academics, best told through the voices of two veteran teachers.
Schalette Gudger, English teacher
Gudger is a veteran teacher with 16 years of experience. Early in the year, she tells parents that she expects a lot from their young men:
“So, if I’m tough on them it’s because I have high expectations for them. I’m going to be hard on them. Because I teach the language that helps them unlock the codes that we’ve been telling them to switch. … And if they will allow me, I will give them what I have.”
In the classroom, Gudger is always pushing her students to dig deeper. The vast majority of Ron Brown’s faculty and staff are men. Ms. G, as she’s known, thinks that gives her a unique perspective:
“What I have that works for me is, I’m Mom. So when they come in, they feel the same strict but loving environment that they feel at home. So it’s like, ‘OK, we can smile, we can laugh, we can joke, but we know this is serious business. We know that this is what is expected of our behavior.’ It’s the same thing with Mom. We may laugh and joke and play – we may even be disrespectful – but we know, at the end of the day, we need to bring it back in. We have a job to do.”
Many of Gudger’s students struggle with the daily challenges of poverty. Some have experienced violence and trauma. So she tries to be flexible. A student falling asleep, for example, shouldn’t always be taken as an affront. It may indicate trouble at home:
“Some of them are so on edge that they literally do not sleep at night. So, if you need a break … if you’re comfortable enough here to put your head down, Baby, by all means rest.”
Shaka Greene, math teacher
Greene is also a veteran teacher who, like many of his students, grew up in poverty.
“I watched my mother work multiple jobs to make sure we ate. There were times I went to school with holes in my shoes. So I get it. That is why I am as hard on them as I am, because I know your circumstances don’t matter as much as your will and desire to be successful.”
Greene says he struggles sometimes to find the balance between showing his students love and preparing them for the world.
“If you leave high school and you still make a 600 on the SAT, nobody cares how much you were loved. Congratulations, you feel good about yourself. But you’re still reading, writing and counting below average. And I am now a Google exec. And I don’t want below average. I want the best of the best.”
Greene’s passion is chess. And he runs the most popular after-school club at Ron Brown: chess club. And in the game, he sees a metaphor for these young men.
“The key to chess, really the soul of the game of chess, are your pawns. If I’m able to get my pawn all the way to your last rank, this pawn can become any piece on the board that I want it to become other than a king or another pawn. Once you learn to value your pawns, you really start to learn to understand and grow at the game of chess.”
Our yearlong reporting project, “Raising Kings, A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep,” concludes next week on the Code Switch podcast and on npr.org.
Illustrations by LA Johnson.