LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Eleven-year-old Andres Rodriguez may have to apply some of the lessons he learns in his science classes to master the physics of his idol, Michael Jackson, and his famous dance moves.

Without hesitation, Andres says he hopes to one day follow in the pop music icon’s footsteps and entertain millions across the globe.

“He was just such an inspiration to me, and I would love to be just like him, because he’s just a legend by himself,” said Andres, whose favorite subjects in school are science and math.

Andres is among the first 157 boys preparing for classes to being at the W.E.B. DuBois Academy, and his are examples of the ambition and confidence that Principal Robert Gunn Jr. says he hopes to instill in students during the school’s inaugural year.

“We are one pride, one brotherhood,” Gunn said Friday. “That’s our slogan, and one of our mottos will be you enter as a young lion and you leave as a king.”

The all-boys school will open the 2018-19 school year at the Gheens Academy as JCPS hunts for a permanent space, initially offering classes to just sixth-grade students. Gunn says seventh- and eighth-grade classes will be added in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, respectively.

It will be the district’s first school with an Afrocentric and multicultural curriculum, and Gunn says he hopes the DuBois Academy will become a national model for other school districts looking to launch similar initiatives.

For Andres, he’s excited simply to have an opportunity to learn alongside more students who look like him and share similar experiences at their previous schools. Of the academy’s 157 students, 133 are black, 11 are mixed race, seven are white, four are Hispanic and two are Asian.

His step-mother, Toya Huckleby-Rodriguez, said Andres had been picked on by other students because of his black and Hispanic heritage. At one point, he was called “the burnt marshmallow” in elementary school, where she estimated that 1 or 2 percent of the students were black, she said.

“I never thought about what that name could have meant, and then once I realized what it could have meant, I came home telling my mom,” Andres said. “I was feeling so bad. So bad. I was crying. I just did not feel good.”

“But we talked about that, and I told him, ‘Sticks and stones will break your bones, but names will never hurt you,’ so that’s how we got past it,” said Huckleby-Rodriguez, who has raised Andres since he was 2 weeks old.

After hearing Gunn lay out his vision for the DuBois Academy, Huckleby-Rodriguez said she was sold immediately and knew where she wanted Andres to attend middle school.

“He said two words: mission and leadership,” she said. “And I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want for my son,’ because I want my son to be a leader.”

Using the principal as an example

Gunn, who is entering his sixth year as a principal after previous stints at Foster Traditional Academy and Byck Elementary, plans to start the school year by showing the students his “awful” sixth-grade report card and pictures of him at that age.

He’s also planning to share his report cards from middle and high schools and his first two years in college, when his grade-point average was a 1.9.

“They’ll even hear the story about my father coming to jack me up a little bit when I was playing football as a freshman in college and I start talking a little bit tough on the phone in front of my friends, so dad had to make a three-and-a-half hour drive to my dorm room and remind me who was boss,” Gunn said.

Gunn says he hopes his students will see him as a practical example of someone who changed his attitude and found his path in life.

“I was lost, and this is coming from someone with a very supportive father, very supportive mother, older siblings, but I think I was lost,” he said. “I had no idea who I was.”

He believes such an introduction will make him relatable to DuBois students, and he says he can empathize with issues some will face. For instance, Gunn said other middle school students made fun of his weight at that age, something made more noticeable by the ill-fitting Chris Webber jersey and red shorts he would wear on occasion.

In fact, empathy is part of the DuBois Academy’s PRIDE values. The acronym stands for perseverance, resilience, initiative, discipline and empathy.

“I feel there’s a huge difference between empathy and sympathy,” Gunn said. “The day that we start feeling sorry for students, and I think that happens all too often, that’s when we make excuses for them.

“The thing we’re going to empower our staff with in our school is it doesn’t matter what a student walks through our doors with, we have the right people to be able to remedy it. Our mission is to engage, to eliminate barriers and to empower each young man that we serve, and I’m adamant that there won’t be any young lion that walks through our doors that we can’t help.”

That includes supplying clothing for indigent families so their sons can follow the school’s dress code of slacks, button-down shirts, ties and jackets; teaching hygiene; and feeding hungry students who can’t afford a meal.

“We’ll just be able to eliminate any reason why he believes that he’s not going to be successful that day,” Gunn said.

Developing a curriculum

Administrators and teachers at DuBois have built the school’s curriculum from the ground up, something made difficult after they couldn’t find resources like textbooks geared toward Afrocentric coursework.

Their main interest in such a curriculum, which covers core academic standards, is teaching how different cultures have impacted society. Latonya Frazier-Goatley, an assistant principal at DuBois, compared it to putting students in front of a mirror as they learn.

“I’m able to see myself in the curriculum,” Frazier-Goatley said. “I can see what my culture has contributed to the curriculum as well as what other cultures have contributed to the curriculum.”

The school’s curriculum was also designed around their vision of what a DuBois graduate should be like after leaving the program as well as effective strategies in educating all-male classes, said Amy Wells, another assistant principal.

“I think so often because our teaching population is 80 percent female, we’re not necessarily geared to design instruction that fits boys and how boys learn – lots of multi-sensory opportunities in the classroom, multiple forms of directions, the chance to move,” Wells said.

With a new racial equity policy in place at JCPS, Chief Equity Officer John Marshall said the DuBois Academy fits “seamlessly” with the district’s move to improve equity and opportunity for all students in the classroom.

Marshall says inequity is an issue in school districts across the U.S. and isn’t confined to JCPS.

“Jefferson County Public Schools has actually taken a step to address those inequities by using the racial equity policy,” he said. “The racial equity policy is calling for schools, community systems and principals to look at the data, look at how we’re teaching students, look at how we’re reaching students or not, and putting plans in place to address students” like Andres.

As a JCPS graduate, Marshall sees a bit of himself in kids like Andres. He choked up as Andres shared his excitement about being part of the first class at the DuBois Academy and talked about his hopes for the upcoming school year.

“Latonya and I grew up in this district,” he said, wiping away tears. “I grew up on these streets. I grew up in this system, and it’s been a long time coming for change, and it’s been a hard fight, as you know, for this.”

Andres has no plans to squander the opportunity before him.

And he understands that things haven’t always been equal for kids like him in school.

“I think everybody is the same and should be treated the same no matter what, no matter what grades they get, no matter what skin color they are, no matter what hair color they have,” Andres said.

“That’s why this world needs to change, and some people, for example me or other kids, could also change it,” he added.

Reach reporter Kevin Wheatley at 502-585-0838 and kwheatley@wdrb.com. Follow him on Twitter @KevinWheatleyKY.

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