Dunbar High School autonomy proposal stirs debate in D.C.


Large metal letters spelling out the school’s name are seen at the entrance of Dunbar High School. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

A proposal to improve Dunbar High School by converting it to an autonomous and selective school has generated widespread debate among teachers, students, alumni and community members. It’s a debate not only about the future of Dunbar, one of the District’s most storied public schools, but also about the city’s ability to serve all students.

The push for change, which a small group of alumni and parents quietly developed over the past several months, would give Dunbar more freedom to make decisions about whom it hires, how it spends its money and how it designs its academic offerings.

But the proposal, first reported last week in The Washington Post, would also transform a neighborhood school that is legally obligated to take all comers into an application-only institution that could choose its students. Such an arrangement most likely would give Dunbar, in the 100 block of N Street NW, the ability to choose not to serve the neediest neighborhood children.

It’s an idea that could jump-start a transformation of Dunbar, which was once known for educating the District’s elite black students and is now one of the city’s worst-performing schools.

But critics of the proposal say it would be a false transformation, built on the rejection of students who come to class with profound challenges — including poor reading ability, deficient math skills and difficult home lives — that need to be addressed.

“I would just hope that whatever solution they come up with, it’s something that takes into account every single student in the system and takes care of every kid in the school,” said Kat Calvin, who runs a nonprofit organization that works with Dunbar’s female students. “There’s always this temptation to write off certain children and say it’s too late for them. That’s never true.”

A Dunbar sophomore, concerned about what a major change might bring, said, “What should be the goal is trying to fix the problems that are here and ensuring that students are getting what they need.”

The alumni and parents who developed the proposal planned to pitch it to D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson as a way to restore Dunbar’s reputation for academic achievement, according to interviews and talking points obtained by The Post.

Henderson declined to comment, as did two of Dunbar’s most influential living graduates, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D). Former school board member Carrie Thornhill — a confidante of Gray’s and a 1961 Dunbar graduate who has been working on the proposal — also declined to comment. Principal Stephen Jackson did not respond to requests for comment.

Alison Stewart, who interviewed many alumni and school leaders for her 2013 book about Dunbar, “First Class,” said she sensed that many graduates felt sad, and sometimes frustrated, that the school no longer offers students the kind of experience it once did.

One graduate “expressed dismay that students who really wanted to learn and were there to learn had to do so in a sometimes disruptive environment,” Stewart wrote in an e-mail. She also said Dunbar, given its history, seems a natural choice to help meet the demand for more rigorous schools. “It is wise for administrators to take a look at the one-size-fits-all high school model, given there are . . . so many students in the system at so many different levels.”

The District has six selective high schools that enroll almost 4,000 students. Charter high schools enroll 6,400 students, and neighborhood high schools — many of which parents consider options of last resort — have about 7,000.

Some people worry that creating another selective high school at Dunbar would further concentrate the neediest students in the neighborhood high schools that remain.

Cardozo Education Campus, the neighborhood high school closest to Dunbar, has a large number of special education students (at least a third of its enrollment) and students learning English as a second language (at least a quarter). Many students arrive years behind grade level, and fewer than four in 10 graduate on time. What would happen to Cardozo if it was asked to take on Dunbar’s most difficult students?

“We already have selective schools,” said a Dunbar employee who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of fears of retribution. “Adding another just makes the others vulnerable. The other schools automatically become permanent underclass hubs.”

Faith Hubbard, president of the Ward Five Council on Education, said she supports Dunbar’s push for more flexibility on budget matters, curriculum and staffing. But she, too, expressed concern about requiring students to apply in order to enroll.

“Wouldn’t it be even more a story of victory if you were able to do this with the students that you have?” she said.

Hubbard suggested that it might make sense to start an application-only program at Dunbar while reserving seats to accommodate neighborhood children. “If there were a particular program or two that was selective at the school, then that would be great,” she said, “because you could have a variety of kids learning together and encouraging each other to learn.”

Johnathon Carrington, Dunbar’s 2013 valedictorian, said he would like to see standards set for admission to the school. Students who skip class, misbehave and refuse to participate make it difficult to learn, he said. But he said admission standards, at least at first, should be based largely on students’ efforts, on their willingness to try.

“They should set the bar where it’s pretty reasonable for the students so they can apply themselves, and then, as years go, they should raise the expectations,” said Carrington, a freshman at Georgetown University who remarked that he often wonders how he got into such a prestigious university.

“I feel as though all the standards that Georgetown has, I didn’t meet all of them,” he said. “The future students of Dunbar — I don’t want them to feel that way. I want them to feel: ‘I worked hard in high school. I met all of the standards. I got into a good college and feel as though I should be there.’ ”

Questions about Dunbar’s future are sometimes difficult to separate from the future of the Truxton Circle neighborhood, which — like much of the city — has gentrified quickly in recent years, becoming noticeably whiter, younger and wealthier.

Students are “already living in a city that is changing under their feet,” said a member of the Dunbar community, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect relationships at the school and who said Dunbar’s new, $122 million building has intensified the feeling among many students that they don’t belong.

“They’ve lived in the city longer than most of us, and it’s becoming a whole new place, a place that’s pretty loudly saying, ‘This is not for you,’ ” the Dunbar community member said. “And now they’re here in this school that seems like it’s for students that are better than they are. . . . And now all of these people are saying, ‘Yeah, we do want students who are better than you.’ ”

Emma Brown writes about D.C. education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.
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