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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Love, struggle and failure

In Raising Kings: A Year of Love and Struggle at Ron Brown College Prep, a three-part series by NPR and Education Week, Cory Turner reports on the first year of Washington, D.C. high school designed to nurture and educate young men of color.

In the second half of the 2016-17 school year, the school’s college-prep ambitions clashed with its social-emotional learning mission, writes Turner. Forty percent of students are at risk of failing ninth grade.

Shaka Greene can’t teach algebra “because my students are still learning to add 49 plus 17.”

Principal Ben Williams adds more time in core classes and creates optional Saturday classes, but many don’t take advantage.

In May, teachers learn of two districtwide grading policies: Teachers are supposed to give half-credit, instead of a zero, when students don’t turn in homework. Furthermore, a student who can fail three quarters but pass with a C in one quarter.

“I hate it, and my students know I hate it,” says English teacher Schalette Gudger. “I think it’s a play into creating a generation of students, particularly in urban school systems, that are not prepared when they get to college or get to careers to be productive.” “That’s not teaching my kids integrity,” says history teacher Travis Bouldin. “Low expectations are low expectations. I don’t care how you cut it.”

The school’s psychologist, Charles Curtis, argues that failing ninth grade makes it likely students will drop out and fail permanently.

“Research shows that 1 in 4 young, black men who drop out of high school will be locked up by the time they’re 24,” notes Turner.

It’s only the school’s first year, says Williams. “We’re fundamentally trying to build our young men from the ground up, breaking down every bad habit, every poor experience and giving them a space where they can believe in themselves.”

“I understand the statistics, that if a student fails ninth grade he is bound to drop out of high school,” says Gudger, the English teacher. “I get it. However, it’s like, ‘So, if we pass him through, what can he do with his life? What have we prepared him for?’ “

Some Ron Brown ninth graders have a shot at doing ninth-grade work. Others are starting high school with elementary reading and math skills. It’s not enough to build their confidence or even their work habits: They need intensive help to learn foundational academic skills.

In Our School, my book about a mostly Latino charter high school, I write about the “five-year plan.” School leaders realized that students who start way behind will need five years to complete college-prep courses. Pushing them through without mastery sets them up to fail.

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