D.C. School’s Past Excellence Collides With Sad Present

Back to October 2013 Ed Reporter

D.C. School’s Past Excellence
Collides With Sad Present

In August, Washington D.C. citizens and officials celebrated the opening of a $122 million school that still bears the name of the historic Dunbar High School. Dunbar, the nation’s first public, academic high school for African Americans, was founded in 1870. “The new Dunbar, like many of the D.C. school buildings that have been rebuilt in recent years, boasts all manner of energy-efficient features, from geothermal heating to solar panels.” (Washington Post, 8-18-13) Classrooms also feature flat-screen televisions, interactive whiteboards and digital projectors. The 1977 building that formerly housed Dunbar and is now scheduled for demolition is a monument to a previously failed but widely prescribed education theory: classrooms without walls.

Even with all the bells and whistles, Dunbar High School is only a shadow of its former self. According to the Washington Post, “It produced generations of black leaders in fields such as law, education, science, engineering and civil rights.” But in 2012, Dunbar graduated only 59% of its students and registered a mediocre 20% proficiency in math and 29% in reading. (Washington Times, 8-25-13) Although 2012 enrollment was only 504 students, the new school was built to serve 1,100 students and there are questions concerning from where the additional students will come.

Dunbar’s Proud Past

Thomas Sowell wrote in the Spring, 1974 issue of The Public Interest, “With all the voluminous outpourings on black educational pathology, there has been an almost total neglect of one of the most remarkable black educational success stories: Dunbar High School.” Dr. Sowell described the history of Dunbar from its basement location beginnings. In the auditorium of the 1916 building were found these words by the school’s namesake, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar: “Keep a-pluggin’ away, Perseverance still is king. . . .”

From 1870-1955 most of Dunbar’s graduates went on to college and were successful. Sowell offers several reasons for Dunbar’s success, notably the demand for academic excellence by the black community of Washington, D.C. Fancy physical facilities and generous financial support are dismissed by Sowell because Dunbar had neither. Sowell said of the achievements of Dunbar students:

The question of how it was done needs more exploration. It was not done by teaching ethnocentric ‘relevance,’ nor was it achieved with generous financing or even with adequate plant and equipment. What Dunbar had was a solid nucleus of parents, teachers, and principals who knew just what kind of education they wanted and how to produce it.

By the time Dr. Sowell wrote his 1974 Public Interest article, Dunbar had become a “ghetto school,” with a principal who spent her days dealing with “discipline problems.” What happened to the school’s academic excellence?

Although no one would decry the 1954 D.C. court order to halt school segregation as anything but an admirable goal, no concern over what was being destroyed was allowed during the rush to integrate D.C. schools. The success of Dunbar high school students was not considered. No plan was organized so that the school would be both desegregated and remain academically excellent.

D.C. Public Schools’ Rocky Reputation

Dunbar High School’s fall from excellence is symbolic of the struggles of D.C. schools in recent decades. The 2012 Nation’s Report Card (NAEP) rankings show D.C. schools rank dead last among 52 jurisdictions. The rank includes both regular public and public charter schools in the nation’s capital (43% of D.C. students attend charter schools). While the D.C. Public Schools website proudly declares, “DCPS students grew in every tested subject area from 2012 to 2013 in math (up 3.6 percentage points from 2012), reading (3.9 percentage points), science (1.8 percentage points) and composition (4.6 percentage points),” student performance is still abysmal.

D.C. schools have been plagued with controversial chancellors, allegations of cheating on standardized tests along with accusations of failure to adequately investigate that cheating, and failure to adequately educate students. Whether the expensive, new Dunbar High School will produce better-educated students remains to be seen. A community of concerned educators and parents focused on excellence, exhibiting the perseverance of which P. L. Dunbar wrote, on the other hand, would quite definitely go a long way toward improving student outcomes.