Can an All-Boys, Afrocentric Education Close the Achievement Gap?

Ron Brown College Preparatory High School students filter into the room where the school holds daily schoolwide circles for students to talk. (Emmanuel Felton/The Hechinger Report)
Ron Brown College Preparatory High School students filter into the room where the school holds daily schoolwide circles for students to talk. (Emmanuel Felton/The Hechinger Report)

“I am the pink flower” is not the kind of thing a ninth-grade boy usually says with a straight face, especially not in a room filled with other teenage boys.

But the young men in Schalette Gudger’s English class at Ron Brown College Preparatory High School, a new all-boys public school in Washington, D.C., were serious about their roles in Romeo and Juliet—so serious, some even said the floral phrase. Teams of students picked a scene, decided whether to use the original script or create their own and staged a performance.

One team reworked the lines to emulate the language of today’s Washington: “He brought some flowers and he told me to roll out, so I did.”


“They were able to—well, as much as 14-year-old boys will—emote. They were able to make connections with those lines and with those scenes,” Gudger said proudly. “When I told them the last thing they would do for the year was act out Romeo and Juliet, they didn’t think they would be able to do it or that it was even a part of what a 14-year-old black boy should be doing.”

Ron Brown College Preparatory School, located in Washington’s Deanwood neighborhood, was built to tackle a singular issue: raising the low graduation rates of the city’s young men of color. The school just started its second year; last year it served about 100 ninth-graders. It’s 96 percent black, and most students hail from wards 7 and 8, home to many of Washington’s poorest neighborhoods.

The school’s educators are reviving some old-school ideas—single-sex education and the Afrocentric schools movement—that have been dismissed by many experts in education as largely ineffective (pdf). The push for a new school designed specifically for boys of color clashes with a simultaneous effort for more integration in this deeply segregated city. But there’s clearly a limit to how much integration efforts can succeed in a city in which so many middle-class families, black and white, still opt out of the public school system. And leaders here are hoping that by mixing in some new ideas with research on better ways to teach and support black boys living in poverty, their brand of culturally focused, all-male education can work.

At Ron Brown, boys wear white oxford shirts, khaki pants, blue blazers, and gold and maroon ties, but don’t mistake the school for some kind of straight-laced military academy. At the school’s core is what is known as the Culture and Restorative Efforts team. The team consists of two teachers and five support professionals—a school psychologist, an empowerment coach, a social worker and two counselors—all of whom are black men.


Charles Curtis, the psychologist who heads up the CARE team, thinks that the shared background and experiences of students and teachers allow them to delve more deeply into the issues that confront young black men, in school and out. This intimate knowledge and laser focus is what Curtis is betting will set Ron Brown up for success.

Curtis wasn’t surprised the boys were able to connect with Shakespeare’s melodramatic romance, for instance. Curtis sees getting these young men in touch with the range of emotions they will experience in life as key for preparing them for life after graduation. “These brothers need a lot of affection,” he said. “There is so much fear in the average black male growing up in a city that is covered up as bravado. But here we’ll be like, ‘Yo man, you need a hug?’ We make affection and feelings something that is safe to access. This place is full of love, even if it doesn’t necessarily look like a R&B song.”


The number of black teachers across Washington has declined sharply. In contrast, the staff at Ron Brown, like the student body, is overwhelmingly black. “I went to a black college, and what Morehouse did for me is they loved me,” said Curtis. “What we are doing here is helping them develop a sense of themselves.”

The school is still too new for test scores to measure whether it is producing better results than the district’s coeducational campuses, but existing research suggests that, even with its unique approach, Ron Brown faces an uphill battle to help its students beat the odds. A 2014 meta-analysis of 184 studies (pdf) concluded that, controlling for other factors, same-sex schools don’t provide a statistically significant test-score bump over coeducational schools. The trio of authors also found insufficient evidence to conclude that same-sex schools are particularly helpful for boys and men of color.


Pedro Noguera, an education professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has studied single-sex schools for boys and men of color.

“While some of the schools that are successfully educating black and Latino males are single-sex, others are not,” he concluded in a 2012 opinion piece published by Education Week. “There is no magic to be found in merely separating boys of color from their peers.”


Researchers have also ascertained that Afrocentric education doesn’t tend to move the needle much. Martell Teasley, dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and a supporter of Afrocentric education, looked at test scores at nearly two dozen Afrocentric charter schools and discovered that those schools rarely closed the test-score gap.

Ron Brown isn’t explicitly a school for black children, but it borrows several elements from the Afrocentric schooling movement that flourished in the 1980s. Afrocentric schools sought to elevate the history of Africa, emphasizing topics like the pharaohs of Egypt. At Ron Brown, teachers often refer to students as kings.


Many of the Afrocentric schools in the past, both public and private, arose in response to the same concerns that propelled Washington’s public schools to launch Ron Brown: Existing high schools struggle to serve boys of color.

At Ron Brown, leaders are aware that schools that have come before have struggled to meet their goals of uplifting young black men. That’s why they’re trying to structure their school differently.


Before coming to Ron Brown, Curtis worked on many of the problems that greet black boys as soon as they walk in the schoolhouse door. While in graduate school at the University of Virginia, he worked on a program that targeted needless special education referrals handed out to black boys. Since then, he’s been occupied with programs, like restorative justice, that offer alternatives to suspensions, which tend to be meted out more readily to black boys. It’s that work that caught the eye of Benjamin Williams, Ron Brown’s principal, who crafted the psychologist position for Curtis.

Curtis’ days at Ron Brown start with him running a community circle that includes the entire school, both students and staff. Students can talk about what’s on their minds at these circles, which last 35 minutes.


“At the beginning of the year, every week a black man was shot by the police, so we would show video and have overt discussions about it; we just spent a lot of time addressing the world as it is,” said Curtis, remembering some of the school’s first community circles. “The end goal is helping [students] understand their place in the world. The stakes are high.”

But Curtis says the circles also provide a time for students to be kids: “There’s a decent amount of horseplaying, even with the grown folk around here.”


After the morning circles, Curtis turns to running smaller circles between students and teachers who have had conflicts. He and another member of the CARE team take kids out of class to huddle and talk about what happened and how the harm can be repaired.

“We can’t punish you into doing better. We can’t even strong-arm you into doing better. Instead we can equip you with skills and awareness of yourself so that you can do better,” said Curtis.


On one May afternoon, he assembled a circle in response to shoving match. The dispute started with a game of monkey in the middle, played with one boy’s shoe. As the boy tried to grab his shoe, he swiped a classmate in the face and what began as horseplay ended as a scuffle. Curtis said the circle presented a chance to impart a serious life lesson to the ninth-grade boy whose shoe was being tossed around.

“You need to use your words,” he remembers telling the boy. When a large black male cannot describe his actions or intentions, he warned, “Someone is going to shoot you. Someone is going to be scared and take care of you.”


Curtis says he has already seen signs of promise at Ron Brown. By the end of the school year, the school had issued only six suspensions, two-thirds of which had been handed out to just two students. The suspensions were mandatory under district policy for infractions involving drugs or weapons in the school building.

In addition to the low suspension rate, the school that is still too new to have test-score data has another metric of success: Eighty-five percent of students signed up to come back next year.


“A lot of the most outspoken and resistant students back in the fall are now the strongest wardens of the culture,” said Curtis. “We are not going to have any arguments about getting in a circle and talking about our feelings or putting on a tie and a jacket.”

Emmanuel Felton is a staff writer at the Hechinger Report who covers race and equity. This story was produced by the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education, in partnership with The Root.

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1) Single Sex education is not the panacea that people think it is.

I know that internet people aren’t very fond of “evidence” or supporting their arguments - but just this week we have entire nations in the Middle East that have had DECADES (if not centuries) of single sex education.

You know who does well when you separate the boys and the girls?


If you read the article carefully, it turns out that only in the integrated schools do the boys match the girls. Maybe the boys are bringing the girls down to their levels...

And what a lot of research is telling us about men/women in school tells us that women are just as capable, if not more so in all subjects including STEM, and STEM is the only thing that boys (as a class) can compete in.

2) Everyone loves uniforms - I don’t know why. I ride the Green line on the daily. I’d say most of the school aged kids are wearing someone’s uniform. I can’t say much about these individual children that I encounter, but I think the test scores basically speak for themselves. It’s like teachers that love alphabetically assigned seating. As if putting kids in rows is going to make them magically learn more.

3) Integration - DC is rapidly gentrifying, but those transplants from the Midwest working on K-Street are not sending little Connor and Madison to the local school. They’re sending them to carefully selected charter schools, private schools, or moving out to very white parts of Northern VA. So that tax money is supporting DC schools, but there isn’t the level of integration that you would expect.

But is integration required for academic achievement?

Many of the The Root’s readers are from the Caribbean and Africa. Guess what group of immigrants in America tend to have the highest education?

The Africans.

Where do you think they learned before they came over? All black schools.

I think we should reject the notion that integration is necessary for academic achievement. Integration has its own merits aside from academics.

Keep in mind that Benjamin Banneker - a DC magnet school is like 95-100% black - it is co ed - and is one of the best schools in the country (best by grades and college placement)

4) “Afrocentric schooling movement that flourished in the 1980s”

If it worked so well in the 80's, these schools would have spread. The thing is that they didn’t work that well. By “work well” I mean high test scores and kids going to college. Had that been the case there would be a lot more of them.

Now if we measure value by “knowledge of self”, a lot of these African schools are off the charts good. But translating that skill set to an economic one in this particular system has been difficult. There are only so many people get to be Coates, Gates, and West. 

Overall, depending on what studies you read, black and brown children have either gained ground or lost ground academically. The actual details are never really a discussion in policy circles.

As a public policy issue, everyone has been ostensibly trying to educate black youth since the Brown v. Board. So had Afro-Centric schools really started turning out geniuses with high test scores, there’s enough liberal govt money out there to support that. (shocking, I know)

Most school reforms for black kids have been abysmal failures by my measure. A lot of “solutions” are really Trojan Horses.

For example, school vouchers and charter schools aimed at bettering black and brown children are actually used to disempower the teacher’s bloc of voting, middle class jobs for women of color, and as a cash grab for various operators. You guys should start paying attention to local New Orleans politics post Katrina. The black middle class pre-Katrina was heavily invested in working for the city - lots of them being teachers. Post Katrina, lots of those teachers lost jobs because of the charter schools, and their political patrons lost power.

Vouchers were initially designed by conservatives to get public money (and their white kids) into religious schools. Charter schools is more of that cult of Chicago type thinking. If we could just manage a necessary government function like a business - we could profit!

5) I wish the school well - but until we get serious about tackling the problems of educating the youth of DC - we’re gonna keep seeing these dog and pony shows.

Things they should be thinking about - Are the kids fed? (even at the high school level this is an issue) Can they see? Do they need glasses? Are they in dental pain? Do they have some place to sleep at night? Is there light to do homework? If they run into problems, do they have a caring adult to ask? Internet? Were there books in the home? Teaching to the test? Not teaching for the environment they face after high school? Heck, after school! Et cetera. These are all things that can be addressed in the schools by various agencies - but only if people think beyond putting a tablet in every book bag or some other nonsense.

Keep in mind, middle class white kids in the NoVA burbs have all this stuff and MORE, plus relatively calm classrooms, 2 parent/income households, and stable post school lives. Yet most of them STILL come out mediocre.

Rethink education. *rant mode over*