‘Young Kings’: school empowers students beyond classroom

Photo Illustration by Michele abercrombite

When Ron Brown College Preparatory High School first opened in Washington, D.C., in 2016, some community members initially pushed back. In a Washington Post article, people commented that the “young kings” sounded like a gang and accused the school of segregating D.C. students.

But this didn’t stop Ron Brown College Prep from creating a safe space for its Black male students using restorative justice principles as a foundation. Instead, “young kings” who enter through the doors of the high school are greeted by staff who aim to empower their students through a loving and supportive environment.

After desegregation, Black schools that once served as safe spaces either replaced Black teachers with white teachers or disappeared altogether. As a result, Black students have been overrepresented in the school-to-prison pipeline ever since, researchers and child advocates say.

Ron Brown College Prep hopes to dismantle this. 

The public high school specifically curated for male students of color was a product of Benjamin Williams’s experience in school and his drive to make a difference. 

Williams, the founder and former principal of the school, grew up in foster care with his brother, living in many homes and attending many different schools. While Williams was more successful academically, he said his brother was just as capable –– he just needed different support. 

He said he and his brother would have benefitted from a school like Ron Brown.

Williams was observant growing up. He said he always noticed how people who looked like him were treated: first in his middle school, high school, then college. When he began a career in education, he saw it firsthand.

Researchers from Princeton University found that in 2019, Black students were 2.5 times more likely to be referred to law enforcement, 3.5 times more likely to be arrested and 4 times more likely to be suspended than white students. 

This is when Williams said he realized, “It’s not just me and my brother, it’s more than that.” 

Charles Curtis, a psychologist and restorative justice coordinator at the school, said if school were in session right now, students would probably be talking about police brutality in their morning community circle, which starts off each day connecting them with one another.

Community circle is really where we connect. We also get in the habit of being together, sharing ideas, doing social and emotional work,” Curtis said. 

Curtis said that Black spaces like the school are important, especially for boys in their adolescence who are growing up in a country that doesn’t accept them.

“It is fundamentally hostile to their existence, to their mental health, to their opportunities to progress,” Curtis said. “They are criminalized. This is their life.”

Built on restorative justice

The morning circle is fundamental to the restorative process at Ron Brown. This process focuses on the reason behind the student’s behavior and connects them with the community and the person they may have harmed, rather than suspending and expelling students as a default. 

Curtis said schools often look at situations warranting either restorative justice or exclusionary discipline. 

“There is no ‘which’ at Ron Brown. It is always restored,” he said. “Even in the most severe scenario where the young person did get suspended, our effort is always restorative.”

Curtis is a part of the CARE Team, which supports students and teachers in restorative practices. It’s made of counselors, psychologists, social workers, a director of empowerment and culture, and other school administrators.

The team addresses school culture, climate, restorative practices, and social and emotional learning, according to the Ron Brown website.

Teachers are also encouraged in their classrooms to address any conflicts or disruptions instead of sending kids out of the classroom. Students participate in peer circles, which use a restorative justice model to address and repair situations between classmates. 

Williams said he was intentional in bringing restorative practices into the school to help students learn accountability.

“You also have to make sure that you hold yourself in a way that you are willing to speak up for yourself. And that’s not something that most of our young men were expected to do prior to walking into the space,” Williams said.

Curtis said involving students in these practices is important because it helps them cultivate skills to not only help them navigate their experience in school, but outside of it as well.

A culture of love

Christian Johnson, who goes by CJ, was heavily involved with the school’s restorative justice practices when he was a student. He led morning community circles and sat in on restorative justice circles as part of the junior CARE team.

Johnson, who graduated with the inaugural class in June 2020, said his experience at Ron Brown shaped him into the leader he is today. He still remembers his first day walking into Ron Brown. 

“I had my jacket newly dry-cleaned, my tie was perfect, my shirt was pressed,” he said. “I was ready.”

As soon as he walked in, he and his fellow classmates were called “young king” by school staff. He said the day started with a morning community circle and greeting his brothers, a ritual that took place every day of his high school career. 

Calling students “young kings,” was a part of a constant push to empower students to take control of their own fate, Curtis said. He said this is deliberate because Black students are often exposed to narratives about what is wrong with them.

“We were intentional about every time we speak to them or of them that we were naming what was right about them,” he said. “You are special. You are important. You are a ruler. You are most of all the ruler of yourself. You decide where you are going.”

Johnson said he remembers Williams stressing the importance of taking advantage of the opportunities the school had to offer. 

The school takes students on college tours as early as ninth grade. Curtis said this exposure is important, because it shows the students that they have options and opportunities to create their own destiny.

Johnson said the moment that stuck out to him the most during his time at Ron Brown was when his stepfather passed away in June and the whole school reached out to him. He said he didn’t expect to be embraced the way he was, but that it speaks to the family culture intrinsic to the school.

“The school hours end when they end, but we don’t ever stop belonging to each other,” Curtis said.

Johnson said Curtis is like his uncle, and that he continues to ask Curtis for advice about both  small and large life decisions. Their relationship extends beyond the school walls, and Curtis continues to support Johnson as he begins the next chapter at Howard University, playing basketball and studying finance.

Johnson said he thinks Ron Brown was built on culture, and that restorative justice contributes to the positive culture he experienced. 

“The loving and the caring that the teachers have and the staff have for everybody is Ron Brown itself,” Johnson said.

Source photo courtesy of Christian Johnson

Chloe Jones is a master’s student in the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. In 2019, she earned a bachelor’s degree at Cronkite with minors in philosophy and Spanish. Jones, who is from Tempe, Arizona, previously covered sustainability and immigration for Cronkite News, the news division of Arizona PBS, where she reported from Mexico, Peru and Panama. Her 2019 multimedia investigation of a sewage crisis on the Mexico border won first place awards from the Online News Association and Associated College Press. A photo of migrants in Peru won a Society of Professional Journalists’ Mark of Excellence regional contest. Jones also worked for KJZZ 91.5, the NPR affiliate.

Gabriela Szymanowska is a recent graduate from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where she majored in journalism and electronic media. She worked as a multimedia reporter and held several editorial positions including editor-in-chief of the Daily Beacon, the university’s independent student newspaper. Szymanowska interned at the Knoxville News Sentinel in 2019. While studying in Australia, she worked at AltMedia, a local news organization in the Sydney area. Her stories and photos won multiple awards, including second place for investigative journalism at the Tennessee Associated Press College Awards and first place for feature/news photography for Best of the South.