Raising the (Dun)Bar?


(WTOP/Andrew Mollenbeck)

Since August 2013, Dunbar Senior High School has received a great deal of public attention, and rightfully so. A historic DC high school with an important national legacy, Dunbar has long been a unique American institution. But, now that the new paint has dried, Dunbar is bracing for a new round of publicity. This time, however, the topic isn’t necessarily a pleasant one. The issue at stake: whether DCPS will grant Dunbar “application-only status” in the near future. This is, by no means, a simple decision. Yet, the final outcome, either way, has serious policy implications for DC neighborhood public high schools.

Historical Legacy

Dunbar, originally founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, is the focus of a recent proposal, which, in my opinion, has profound implications for how the District will address neighborhood public high schools. The nation’s first public high school for African-Americans, Dunbar faces a critical point in its historic legacy. What once was a beacon of African-American excellence, in academics and creativity, has become a thorn in the education reformer’s side. Although it boasts an impressive alumni list, which includes African-American leaders in various professions, it now struggles to combat the “unlucky” trifecta that plagues many DC non-application neighborhood public high schools: high-poverty, high truancy rates, and low graduation rates. In many ways, its academic decline is indicative of DC’s turbulent economic past. Fast-forwarding to the present, and taking into account the District’s economic resurgence and gentrification, Dunbar’s legacy, as a neighborhood public high school, is up for discussion.

Subpar Dunbar

Dunbar’s students’ academic performance, vis-à-vis DC CAS, has been anything but stellar. According to the chart below, the student majority, at least since 2006, has performed at, or below, the “Basic” threshold. Given its historical legacy, these “numbers” paint a dim picture. What once was a first-class academic institution has become DCPS’ greatest challenge.


“The Friends of Bedford” to the Rescue?

Prior to Michelle Rhee’s chancellorship, Dunbar had a host of challenges. Whether you agree or disagree with the former DCPS Chancellor, she definitely faced a difficult question: how to resurrect Dunbar? So, what was her solution? Well, rather than seek remedies from within the system, Rhee awarded an outside operator, the “Friends of Bedford,” a lofty contract to “turn” Dunbar around. And. Turn it did. Unfortunately, however, it turned for the worse. According to a former Dunbar Geometry teacher, the “Friends of Bedford created a school culture of neglect, insecurity, zero accountability and poor communication.” In fact, the situation grew so dire that, in 2010, Kaya Henderson, as acting interim-chancellor, stated that Dunbar had “deteriorated significantly.” It’s a shame how little a $1.2 million dollar contract a year, or at least in 2010, yields such catastrophic results. Oh well, so much for that idea! So, I guess it’s time for a new solution, right? Hmmm… okay, what about a new school building?

Old wine in a new bottle?

In August 2013, the District unveiled the new and improved Dunbar Senior High School. This stunning new building cost a whopping $122 million dollars, which is definitely not “pocket change.” Although the “new” Dunbar is architecturally impressive, the core problems aren’t rooted in aesthetics alone. In fact, the problems Dunbar is facing, as well as several other DC neighborhood public schools, include high student truancy rates, low high school graduation rates, low parental involvement and/or poor school-home communication, massive academic gaps per grade level, and severe student misconduct. Unfortunately, sweeping the same old “dirt” under a new carpet isn’t a practical, long-term solution. Subsequently, now that Dunbar has relocated to a sparkling, state-of-the art facility, what are the next steps to reset the school culture within?

The proposal heard round DC

According to the Washington Post, a proposal to restructure Dunbar has recently emerged. This proposal includes granting Dunbar more autonomy, particularly in hiring staff, budgetary spending, and student selection. Regarding the second proposition, I’m all for granting neighborhood public schools more autonomy, especially regarding budgetary spending. The first request needs more clarification, so I’m reluctant to support granting Dunbar full autonomy over hiring policies. The last suggestion, however, is my greatest concern. I definitely question the effect of converting Dunbar, or any neighborhood public school for that matter, to an application-only institution. Since my biggest apprehension centers on the latter aspect, I wish to submit my perspective on the pros and cons of converting Dunbar to an application-only institution.

The Pros

Converting Dunbar into an application only institution, definitely, has at least one major benefit. Simply put, the selection process will undoubtedly allow Dunbar to separate the proverbial “wheat from the chaff.” Although this may sound harsh, let me explain – as a teacher in a high poverty public school – why this advantage is prudent. One problem that plagues several DC neighborhood public schools, especially within economically disadvantage wards, is the issue of chronic student misconduct. In fact, I’d be willing to say it’s the most prevalent, yet least publicized, issue across the DCPS system. With that said, application-only process allows Dunbar to “reset” its school culture. A culture marred by years of student disengagement and misbehavior. So, for this benefit alone, this request is definitely worth serious consideration.

The Cons

However, granting Dunbar “application-only” status means some other public school, in this particular case Cardozo, will inherit the non-accepted or rejected students. To say this is unfair to Cardozo is a colossal understatement. Yes, the students accepted into a “new” Dunbar will have a better chance of attending a safe, learning environment. But, students who aren’t accepted into “application-only” public schools have to attend a non-application-only neighborhood public school. Consequently, this piece meal approach will invariably create a diverged public school system. In addition, reshuffling non-accepted students to other public schools creates school-wide management challenges. A more damaging effect, in my professional opinion, is it will also create zero incentive for quality teachers to sign up for, or remain within, non-application-only public schools. Simply put, it will create a new “old” Dunbar, and, thus, lead us back to square one.

A Tough Decision, Indeed

Will Dunbar Senior High School’s conversion to an “application-only” institution raise the bar? Without question, DCPS, vis-à-vis Chancellor Henderson, has a difficult decision to make regarding the “new” Dunbar Senior High School. Granting Dunbar application-only status will definitely offer students a more productive learning environment? But, does the perceived benefit outweigh the potential risk? Again, this isn’t an easy decision, by far, but it’s a critical one, to say the least. I definitely don’t envy the chancellor on this one.


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