A cooperation of EdWeek and National Public Radio has resulted in a three-episode profile of Ron Brown College Prep, an all-male public high school in Washington, DC. The result is a look at a public high school creating both a thick culture and a narrative of character.
The Washington Post has described how each day at Ron Brown High School begins, with “a period of reflection, affirmation and exhortation . . . 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.”
Alice Lloyd, writing for the Weekly Standard, describes the morning sessions as beginning with “the boys and the faculty taking their seats around the edges of a rectangular meeting room that doubles as the dining hall. Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama looked on—their portraits posted on the wall, exemplars of greatness—while students who came in late quietly reported to their teachers.”
“Principal Ben Williams made the rounds, checking in with a few students here and there while they settled in for the school’s core ritual . . . After a few boilerplate announcements, the lights went down and everyone turned their attention to the day’s discussion starter: a clip from the 1990s sitcom?The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, in which Will Smith breaks down, from cocky and resentful to tearful and dejected, in the arms of his Uncle Phil when Will’s absentee father has disappointed him again.”
“Adults in the room kicked it off, and then a few brave souls among the school’s 105 students followed their lead, one noting Will’s flamboyance and compensatory good humor: his armor. But most of the boys sat quietly and listened with observable interest while their teachers talked about what’s underneath the armor men wear. A male teacher in his late twenties or early thirties talked of an ‘unsettled part of you to explore,’ a sense of abandonment that stays with you until you can’t ignore it—but you, he addressed the students, the ‘young kings,’ you can have these discussions now. Another opened up about his own sense of abandonment, thinking as a young man, ‘I’m pretty great; why shouldn’t they want me?’ An English teacher scanned the student body for attentive eyes and invoked their literary readings and essays—you know these themes, she reminded her boys. (And from loftier sources than a sitcom, a certain encouraging edge in her voice suggested.)”
Lloyd continued: “At RBHS, students are ‘monarchs,’ their mascot the head of a crowned lion facing head-on, and the teachers and staff who counsel and corral them—homeroom advisers in typical public school parlance—are the ‘council of elders.’ ‘If we’re going to move these young men and grow these young men, we have to model what we expect them to do,’ Williams told me. Their work is countercultural, he noted. ‘It doesn’t matter race or ethnicity, it’s uncommon for a 14-year-old young man to be able to express themselves and especially to be able to feel safe enough to do that in a school environment amongst their peers.’”
The work that these young men are doing is counter-cultural, as Williams described, and so is the work that the teachers and administrators are doing. They are leading a public school that leaves its mark by a rigorous focus on character: all the young men wear uniforms; they have a “council of elders”; and their core values commit them to “respect and humility.” The presence of humility in education can be rare. The very first pillar of their school is character, followed by scholarship and service. They know that the order matters decisively.
“History and philosophy both suggest to us that the flourishing of character rooted in the elevated virtues is essential to justice in human affairs; its absence, a measure of corruption and a portent of social and political collapse, especially in a democracy,” wrote James Davison Hunter of the importance of moral formation in The Death of Character. We know that intuitively, which is why a school like Ron Brown College Prep inspires and excites us.
Educational leaders can take inspiration from the concerted effort to make formation their central priority and to make character an explicit, programmatic part of schooling, beginning by adapting a coherent framework for character like the one from the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.