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Getting Up for the Competition

Three days a week, Dunbar High School girls' indoor track coach Marvin Parker starts his day at 3 a.m. by picking up athletes one by one at their homes for practice. Despite the early hours and the rigorous pre-engineering classes that follow, Parker's athletes are competing at the top of their class.

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By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Marvin Parker pulled his minivan into an apartment complex parking lot off Alabama Avenue in the Good Hope neighborhood of the District and flipped open his cellphone to call Ashley Bacote.

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"You ready?" The clock on the dashboard showed 3:47 a.m.

Bacote trudged out the front door, piled her red workout bag in the trunk, and plopped into the back seat. Practice for the Dunbar girls' track team was under way.

"Good morning, coach," the junior sprinter said. "Sorry I was late."

"Another minute," Parker said with a grin, "and it would've been 10 push-ups."

Bacote was the first of 22 athletes Parker picked up and ferried to Dunbar High School over a 90-minute span before sunrise on a recent Wednesday. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, from Nov. 1 until the end of the school year, the girls' track team practices for two hours at school before classes begin. At 7:45, the athletes head to class and Parker leaves for his full-time job as an accountant for General Electric in Landover. The team also practices after school each Tuesday and Thursday, as well as Saturday mornings on non-meet days.

The morning trek through the District offers a glimpse of the remarkable dedication to the team since Parker took over in 2005. The Crimson Tide has won the past two D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association indoor track championships, after winning just one previously, but that is secondary to what the athletes are doing in the classroom.

Fewer than 30 percent of Dunbar's students reached proficiency in math and reading each of the past three years, according to guidelines set by the No Child Left Behind Act, and the school has not met the act's Adequate Yearly Progress in either subject since 2003. Yet the girls' track team accounts for nearly one-third of the top 10 members of Dunbar's past three graduating classes, and several other team members placed in the top 20. One-third of this year's team is enrolled in the school's pre-engineering program, which attracts students citywide through a mandatory interview.

Since Parker took over, 15 team members have earned full college scholarships -- seven athletic, four academic and four a combination of both.

"I can tell you that not too many coaches are willing to get up at 3:30 in the morning," said Riverdale Baptist Athletic Director Terry Terrill, for whom Parker started boys' and girls' track teams in 2001 before leaving for Dunbar. "I think that's the biggest reason why they're so successful. His feelings and desires are genuine for the kids. We lost a good one when he went there, but I'm so proud of the work he's done."

Parker, 45, was born in Memphis and moved to the Washington area in 1976 with his mother and two siblings while his father was in the Navy. He played football and ran track at both Potomac (Md.) High and Morgan State, from which he graduated in 1986.

While her husband was abroad, Dorothy Parker juggled four jobs -- a teacher at Elliott Junior High in the District, at Hecht's headquarters in Northeast, at Sears downtown and as a baggage handler at National Airport. One morning, on her way to school, she was hit by a car at the intersection of 17th and East Capitol streets, three blocks from her home, and suffered a broken arm, hip and leg. After being tended to at Washington General Hospital, Dorothy Parker was back at work at Elliott the next morning, teaching from a wheelchair.


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