With New Middle School for DC Boys, Shawn Hardnett Follows His North Star

Shawn Hardnett has served as a chief academic officer and principal coach in DC since 2010 and in January 2016 decided he was ready to strike out on his own. With support from Education Forward DC and other funders, Shawn has spent the last 18 months building his vision for a middle school for African-American and Latino boys, with a commitment to building positive relationships with the students and a focus on reaching college.

In June, North Star College Preparatory Academy for Boys received conditional approval from the DC Public Charter School Board to operate a school aimed at boys in grades 4-8 beginning in 2018. We asked Shawn about the new school and what makes it different.

Education Forward DC: Why middle school?

Shawn Hardnett: Middle school is my jelly. That’s what I’ve spent most of my life doing that’s what I know the most.

The other thing is that intervention, if done well in middle school, has an incredible impact on the trajectory in life outcome for kids. If we can do some real damage to that gap in middle school and get a kid feeling like they’re smart again, feeling like they can get smart, then you really stand a chance to significantly impact their life.

EF: Why all boys?

SH: There are conversations that we can have with these young men, things that we can get them to participate in, talk about, share, that they will never do when girls are in the room because the social pressures are so apparent.

What we have seen is that we can always get boys to talk more, talk deeper, and we stand a significant chance to actually impact how they think of young ladies, and think of themselves as young men in their interactions with young ladies when they’re in an environment where they can actually talk about that.

EF: What will allow North Star to bridge the African-American boys achievement gap, even as little has changed with billions of dollars and decades of investment?

SH: We assume that teachers know how to build relationships and that assumption has cost us significantly. What we have found in the data is that for poor minority students, urban students, male and female students of urban poverty who have done well – they talk about the relationships that they had with their teachers.

And for those students who have not done well, they talked about the horrible relationships they had with their teachers.

We’re going to teach it. We’re going to practice it. We’re going to create rubrics. We’re going to evaluate folks around it. We’re going to make sure that that’s something that stands out.

EF: Did you have any of those relationships as a student?

SH: I had a favorite teacher, Mr. George Wolfe: He was just a teacher who built an awesome relationship with me and he worked to maintain that relationship through some pretty tough times, and some through some difficult decisions that I made.

One day he said to me: ‘You know, you’re a flake. But you’re going to be a really great teacher. You’re going go to college, and you’re going be a really great teacher.’

I am thoughtful about the fact that if you are in a relationship with someone who you love and trust, whatever they tell you, you’re going to believe and do.

Extra: Watch Shawn talk about the need North Star is filling in the District: