As principal Rodney White walks through the hallways at Young Men’s Leadership Academy in Fort Worth’s historic Stop Six neighborhood, students connect repeatedly with him. 

White greets some of the young boys ages 12 to 18 with a fist bump and asks them how they’re doing in their classes. His office has an open-door policy — boys are allowed to come by and share their concerns, or even offer suggestions to the administration. 

“This school is different because it allows young men to be themselves. You don’t have to try to fit into a social norm,” White said. “It’s cool to be smart and be at school, and we’re going to  celebrate that.”

As the inaugural principal of the academy, White knew his first year as head of the school was a make-or-break year. The academy received a lot of pushback from the Stop Six community when it first opened 10 years ago at the site of the former Dunbar sixth-grade center. 

The Dunbar sixth-grade center was among the highest-performing campuses in the district, White said, and replacing it with this academy meant kids from outside the neighborhood would be able to apply and attend. Not everyone was in support at first. 

“There was a lot of pressure on our young men, on our staff, on myself to perform. When our scores came out and we got that validation — it has just snowballed from there,” White said. 

Against all odds, the Young Men’s Leadership Academy has been hailed a success story. The National Center for Urban School Transformation recognized the academy in 2015 and 2018 as one of the nation’s highest-performing urban schools. 

Showing the success of his students, predominantly Hispanic and Black boys of lower socioeconomic status, was important for White in helping break some of the stereotypes associated with young men of color. 

In the 10 years since opening, the academy has had a 100% graduation and college acceptance rate, he said.

“National data says these are some of the lowest performing students in our nation. I wanted to change that,” White said. “We have a focus on guys being confident, being well spoken and having a vision.”

Rodney White (center) poses with a group of students in front of Young Men’s Leadership Academy on Feb. 23. (Sandra Sadek | Fort Worth Report)

White had a military upbringing — his father was strict and his mother was a teacher. Education was not negotiable, he said. The emphasis on the importance of education is something that he still carries into his leadership at YMLA. 

There, the students refer to themselves as brothers and get to step up as peer leaders to uplift fellow classmates. Boys are praised with merits and get to compete as “prides.” This approach has helped keep academic scores high and things like suspensions low, White said. 

“You start seeing students really taking ownership and wanting to lead one another to be better versus all the teachers always trying to work and get it,” White said. “When you have kids helping, it just automatically happens.”

The brotherhood that White created among the students is not a coincidence, said Justin Edwards, principal at Dunbar High School. The instruction given at the academy is intentional.

“If our students don’t have a sense of community and belonging within the campus or within the community, then they’ll find other ways to belong and we don’t want to lose the kids to the streets or things that are not socially or academically moving them ahead,” said Edwards, who worked at YMLA before moving on to Dunbar High School.

While White and his team at YMLA have been working on helping his students succeed, the principal’s impact has also been felt among staff members. 

Ricky Brown, founding principal of I.M. Terrell Academy, was one of White’s first hires at YMLA. In the 12 years since their first meeting, White became not only a mentor but a brother, Brown said.

“He’s the type of leader who believes in empowerment, and building up those that he works with,” Brown said. 

Working with White has given Brown the confidence to lead I.M. Terrell Academy as the founding principal.

“If I didn’t have him as a mentor and somebody that showed me the way that was still available as I was going through my process, I really don’t know how comfortable I would be taking on that role,” he said. 

Dunbar’s Edwards also remembers the impact White had on helping him grow as an administrator and eventually become a leader himself. 

“Accountability starts with you and you got to own the work,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing – own the work, be about the work and just be an asset. How can you serve other people?”

White hopes to continue to lead and empower the young men at the academy to become responsible members of their communities and change the generations that come after them.

“(We want to show) them the value of education, how it can change the trajectory of your life,” White said. 

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at or follow her on Twitter at @ssadek19

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

Rodney White’s Biography

Birthplace: San Antonio, Texas
Family: Wife, Tiffanie White; daughters, Alexus, Daijah, and Jewel White
Education: Bachelor of science from Abilene Christian University; Masters of educational leadership and policy studies from the University of Texas at Arlington.
Work experience: 23-year as an educator
Volunteer experience: Member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. Volunteered as a Freedom School Reader, at the Tarrant Area Food Bank, and at Fort Worth homeless shelter.
First job: Delivering newspaper at 13 for the Abilene Reporter-News in Abilene, Texas
Advice for someone learning to be a leader: Actively listen more than you speak. Leadership is 80% relational and 20% technical and strategic.
Best advice ever received: “Offense is an action. To be offended is a choice.”

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Sandra SadekBusiness Reporter

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. Originally from Houston, she graduated from Texas State University where she studied journalism and international...