When Shawn Hardnett decided he wanted to build a new school in Washington DC’s Wards seven and eight, he decided to do things differently. He wasn’t the first to envision a school to address long-standing gaps in educating Black and brown school-age boys, but he took the unusual step of talking to the community before students cracked open a book.
In short, Hardnett listened. Interviewing over 450 prospective students, 200 or more parents, and another 150 men who had raised themselves to successful lives from similar circumstances, Hardnett heard stories that were not altogether different despite years of effort to address the problem. Distractions in the classroom, disappointment with the community and the adults who are supposed to be supportive, and disillusionment with an education system that is supposed to provide opportunities.
“In those stories, we felt there was a great design for a school, and we built the Statesmen College Preparatory Academy for Boys out from that,” Hardnett explains. “It was completely [an] empathy-based design.”
In its first year, four years ago, Statesmen had 56 students enrolled. In 2021, that number was 220. In the 2022 school year, it will be 325. The most important lesson Hardnett says he learned was that school is not a physical thing — a building, a campus, a desk, or even a book. It’s a relationship. “The boys made it clear that if you do not have a relationship with them, they are not going to learn from you,” Hardnett says. His Board of Trustees’ profile on the school’s website reinforces that message: “I have seen that when a student loves his teacher, he will exemplify whatever of the other values that the teacher asks. We can’t lose for winning if the relationship is right.”
From the most basic philosophical foundations of community and connection, Hardnett built his school to encourage close relationships between teachers and administrators and the students they serve. Statesmen provides “exemplars” rather than rubrics — examples rather than rules.
One exemplar Hardnett points to is Michael Carswell, who teaches English to 12- and 13-year-old seventh graders. It was Statesmen’s emphasis on relationships that swayed Carswell to come on board. He likes being a friend to the kids, but also a role model for them to follow. He says one of the most important lessons for those kids to see is that there is more than one path to adult success and each child must find his own path. The critical realization to convey is that seeing the future and reaching that future are all possible through education.
For Carswell, the lessons in writing and storytelling that he imparts every day are a window into the minds of these still-evolving young people, but also an outlet for the kids to express themselves and give voice to their personal experiences in ways that have not always been available to them.
Carswell sees results where they matter most, in the kids, but also in himself. There’s a focus at Statesmen on making sure that the staff is the best possible version of themselves they can be, he says. That is supported by therapists who are available to all in the Statesmen sphere. It also comes from the training the school provides him. And it comes from the relationships teachers have with each other and the students.
“All of those things helped me become a better person,” Carswell says, “And that is revealed in the kids’ faces and in their confidence in class.”
Results like these, in sometimes overlooked neighborhoods and in kids who sometimes have far more promise than opportunity, are the reason the A. James & Alice B. Clark Foundation chose to stake Statesmen with early and ongoing funding to make their dream a reality.
“Clark Foundation was here when we started and through it all,” Hardnett says. Early and consistent funding allowed the Statesmen team to turn what was always a good idea into a great one.