FORT WORTH -- Looking across a room of young boys who could potentially be his students, Rodney White said quitting will never be an option at his new school.
Yes, the work will be hard. But at the new Paul Laurence Dunbar Young Men's Leadership Academy, classmates -- called brothers -- will work together on academics, chivalry and respect and learn how being responsible for one another makes everyone stronger.
"It has to be a partnership," White said, looking the young men in the eyes. "We're going to have a swagger like no other."
After encountering a few stumbling blocks, the Fort Worth school district is now on track to open its all-boys academy next school year in the Stop Six neighborhood. While all-girls schools are becoming more prevalent across the state, public schools dedicated to young men are rare in Texas, with only the Dallas and Houston districts and a handful of charters having such schools.
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Cole Costello, a fifth-grader at Bonnie Brae Elementary School, said a school with no girls sounds good to him. He has two older sisters. But more than that, the 11-year-old wants a school where he can make a difference.
"I like every bit of it," Cole said. "I want to be a leader, not a follower."
'A huge plus for us'
Some educators have said all-boys schools are difficult to run because of boys' competitive and rambunctious nature, but others don't buy into that thinking.
"I hear from people saying, 'Do you know what you've gotten yourself into? You're going to have so many behavior problems,'" said White, the new school's principal. "Yes, boys are more, well, energetic and are more difficult to harness behaviorally. But if you have a system that enhances the good things you do and uses that energy, that's a huge plus for us."
Many have worried about the growing gender gap with boys slipping further behind girls academically.
Leonard Sax, founder of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education and author of Boys Adrift, said the biggest challenge to educating boys is overcoming the mindset that it's uncool for boys to be smart.
To illustrate, Sax noted that in the 1950s, Sam Cooke's song Wonderful World describes a boy who didn't know much about school subjects such as history and geography, but was trying to be an A student for his love interest.
"It was cool for boys to be a scholar then," Sax said. "Today the honor roll is a badge of shame for boys. It's hard to imagine Akon or 50 Cent singing about trying harder to make an A in French."
Sax recently worked with school district officials in Dallas, where the Barack Obama Male Leadership Academy opened this school year. Simply separating boys from girls is not enough, he said.
"But it does create an opportunity to do something in radically different ways," Sax said
Principal Nakia Douglas, who leads the Obama academy, said lessons are more hands-on and project-based.
"I can't say I'm surprised, but I am excited about how creative our young men are," Douglas said. "Sometimes in a coed setting, they suppress their abilities for whatever reason, peer pressure. But here it is an expectation that you are a strong student and you are successful."
Fort Worth district officials, who have long pushed for single-sex schools, opened the Young Women's Leadership Academy in 2010.
But the effort to start a boys school stumbled a few times.
When administrators moved on plans to convert the Dunbar 6th Grade Center into the academy without first communicating with Stop Six residents, the neighborhood pushed back against the idea.
White, who worked at the Dunbar middle school for eight years, said he understands the community's concerns about changing the historic campus. He said the only way to win over Stop Six is to create a successful school.
"The vision of this is for these young men that come to this school to come back and better this community," White said. "But until we give them the evidence of that, that's when the community will see it and be proud of the young men it's producing."
The most recent challenge has been generating interest.
Officials had to extend the application period after only 40 students applied for the sixth grade and 17 for the seventh grade. Each grade can handle 75 students.
White is holding meetings districtwide to visit with parents and share his vision.
Eva-Marie Ayala, 817-390-7700