D.C.'s Dunbar High School getting new administrators, more security to quell violence

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 4, 2010; 11:11 PM

Dunbar Senior High School will get new administrators and extra security this week to quell violence and disorder, two years after the school was placed under a private management team by former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee.

Interim chancellor Kaya Henderson said that on two recent visits students roamed the halls and many classrooms were in disarray. She also said "a huge beef" involving neighborhood groups Sursum Corda and Saratoga has spilled into the school.

On Nov. 23, six students were arrested and charged with raping a 15-year-old girl in an unoccupied area of the sprawling school in Northwest. District prosecutors announced last week that the charges of first-degree sexual assault had been dropped, but did not say what prompted the decision. Henderson said concerns about the school predated the alleged incident.

"Things are really difficult at Dunbar this year," Henderson said. "The school culture is not conducive to learning."

Friends of Bedford, the nonprofit firm operating the school, was awarded a three-year contract to operate Dunbar in 2008 as part of a federally mandated effort to restructure three of the city's poorest-performing high schools. The group said it is a victim of politics and a public relations ploy designed to justify its ouster.

Bedford chief executive George Leonard said the intervention Henderson is considering - including extra security - is what the firm requested after it took control of the school in the summer of 2009. Then, he said, the school was "a shambles." Bedford officials also said the neighborhood disputes Henderson described had occurred outside the school.

"She wants to have the partnership phased out," Leonard said. "We're not going to be put in the position where she's making us seem like we're ineffective as a company."

In 2008, Friends of Bedford was selected to run Dunbar and Coolidge senior high schools. Anacostia Senior High School was placed under control of Friendship Public Charter Schools. The operators were granted broad control over curriculum, instruction and staffing, although teachers and administrators remain District employees, subject to local laws and union rules.

The complete contract terms were not disclosed, but D.C. school system procurement records show that Friends of Bedford has received about $1.2 million in payments from the District since September 2009.

Asked if the contract would be renewed when it expires this spring, Henderson said: "That remains to be seen."

Rhee was drawn to Leonard's group by their achievements at Brooklyn's Bedford Academy, which opened in 2003 and drew praise for its academic rigor (including marathon test-prep Saturdays called "nine-to-nines") and orderly school culture. In a 2009 interview

Leonard, a colorful former biology teacher, described his approach as "an iron fist dipped in honey." At Bedford Academy, he said, discipline included the automatic suspension of any male student who cursed or disrespected a female.

Leonard's approach was also less than parent-friendly. According to a New York Times profile, he once told an audience: "Just stay out of my way and let me create the scholar, because you're usually the problem. I'll see you at graduation."

After spending the 2008-09 school year as a planning period, the management group enjoyed some success, by many accounts, when it formally assumed control of the school in the summer of 2009.

Bedford replaced much of the teaching staff, started an intensive tutoring program and put up walls to modify Dunbar's hideous "open classroom" design, a legacy of the 1970s.

Although math scores on the 2010 DC-CAS standardized tests remained flat, reading proficiency increased more than 10 points, from 18.8 to 29.4 percent of the schools sophomores. In an interview last June, Rhee said that all three high schools under outside operation had "significantly improved their school culture," including gains in attendance and safety.

But Bedford may have run afoul of parents and other community stakeholders much in the same way Rhee did - because of a penchant for action over consultation. With Rhee gone and Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) leaving office next month, Bedford officials say parents, alumni and other interest groups have won the ear of Henderson, D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr., who represents Ward 5, where Dunbar is located, and Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D).

Gray, a Dunbar alumnus, told The Post's Jay Mathews in an October interview that he had heard "mixed" assessments of Bedford's performance from students, teachers and alumni.

"There are people who were very enthusiastic in the beginning," Gray said. "They have a good track record for what they've done in New York. Now, more and more, I'm hearing people raising questions about it. . . . You hear from a lot of people about the disruption, the disorder, the kids wandering around the building."

Dunbar PTSA President LaTanya Cherry, who has called for Leonard's ouster, did not return phone messages.

"Our approach isn't very palatable at times, I will say that," said Bevon Thompson, chief financial officer. "We don't wait for any debate or discussion about what should be done. We are at times confrontational because we consider ourselves advocates of children. We are not politicians."

Henderson said the school seemed to regress this fall. Stephen Jackson, the 2009-10 principal, left at the end of the school year for undisclosed reasons. "Many people said he was the keeper of the school culture," Henderson said.

Leonard said Jackson was removed because he was undermining, not building, school culture, and that since his dismissal he has been conducting a "smear campaign" against Bedford. Jackson could not be reached for comment Saturday.


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