Washington, D.C.’s only all-male, college preparatory high school is set to open in the fall. And, its principal, Dr. Benjamin Williams, can’t wait for the premiere of the Empowering Males High School, located on the campus of the former Ronald Brown Middle School in Northeast D.C.
“For 15 years, I have thought about leading a school that catered to young men,” he said. “I wanted a place where young men could come and be comfortable with who they are. That dream came true last year.”
On Jan. 21, 2015, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson announced the implementation of an all-male public high school. This was part of an initiative to improve the academic performance of boys of color in the District’s public school system. Bowser’s actions are a complement to President Obama’s “My Brother’s Keeper,” an effort to improve the lives of young men of color.
Despite concerns by D.C. Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) and the local chapter of the ACLU that an all-male public school may be unconstitutional, D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine (D) ruled that the school is on solid legal ground.
Williams said the school is open to all males of any color and every economic class. “We want to create a climate of academic success that will prepare young men for success in the post-high school world,” Williams said.
In a break from the educational norm of focusing academically on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), the school will specialize in the humanities, including modern and classical languages such as Spanish and Latin as well as studying literature and writing.
“This is not a STEM school,” William said. “We will have a STEM component in terms of math and science but we want our students to focus on the liberal arts and such disciplines as music. We want our students to be college ready with the ability to think critically.”
For example, Williams said his students are taking Latin – considered a “dead” language because it is no longer spoken or written – because it can help them break down the meaning of words that they might not initially recognize.
“I learned the value of Latin while teaching at the School Without Walls (a grade school in Northwest D.C.),” he said. “Latin is the basis of English and other languages and if you understand Latin, you can pick up the other languages easier.”
There is a belief among some educators that all-male institutions must be disciplinarily harsh in practice. Williams rejects that theory. “I believe in disciplining young men and I think the way to reach them is to set high expectations,” he said. “I find that if the young man sees that he can trust you, he will strive harder to be a better student. You may see instances that the young men will police themselves if the trust is there.
“We will also emphasize young men talking through situations instead of dealing with problems through confrontations.”
Williams said he wants a racially and gender diverse staff to work at the school including teachers who want to work with young men. He said it didn’t matter whether the teacher is a graduate of a historically Black college or university or a Teach for America recruit, “they must be at the school for the right reasons.”
“We will support teachers who want young men to be successful and will provide professional development to that end,” Williams said.
Teaching has been a central part of Williams’s life. He received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees at the University of Virginia and started as a high school social studies teacher in Charlottesville, Va. His most recent position was as the associate principal at the elementary school-middle school portion of the School Without Walls at the Francis-Stevens Education Campus in Northwest D.C.
Tierra Jolly, Ward 8 D.C. Board of Education member, is scheduled to meet with Williams in the near future and is looking forward to the interaction. “The Empowering Males of Color initiative is a good starting point for our young men to become achievers in the classroom,” she said.
Jolly hopes the District school system will work on a similar program for young women soon.
The school will start classes in August with just ninth-graders and will add a grade each year. The first graduating class is expected in 2020.