Dunbar High's private operator is dropped

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By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 9, 2010

Interim D.C. Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson ousted the private, New York-based operator of Dunbar Senior High School on Wednesday, less than three years after former schools chief Michelle A. Rhee hired it to transform the culture and academic performance of the struggling school.

Henderson's removal of Friends of Bedford comes after a series of complaints from parents, teachers and other community members about safety, security and academics at the 750-student school in Northwest Washington. She has said that during her visits to the school, she saw students roaming the halls and classrooms without teachers.

"The school is no longer operated by Friends of Bedford. It will function as a traditional DCPS high school," Henderson said in a prepared statement. Bedford will continue, however, to operate Coolidge High School under its contract with the District, which expires in the spring.

In an unusual twist, Henderson named former Dunbar principal Stephen Jackson, who was removed from the post by Bedford officials at the end of the 2009-10 school year, to head the new leadership team. Henderson said last week that the school took a turn for the worse when Jackson was removed.

Henderson's action underscores the extreme difficulty of high school turnarounds - especially involving operators who try to transplant their success into new soil in a different city. Rhee selected Friends of Bedford on the basis of its success at Bedford Academy, a highly regarded Brooklyn public school with an unstinting emphasis on college preparation. Anacostia Senior High School, which was placed under the control of Friendship Public Charter Schools by Rhee at the same time she hired Bedford, has also had leadership changes and discipline issues.

Bedford Chief Executive George Leonard, who had been acting principal since the beginning of the current school year, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But in an interview Saturday, Leonard said the District's intervention was politically inspired, the product of disgruntled parents and former staff who had the ear of Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D), a Dunbar alumnus, and D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D), who represents Ward 5, home to the school.

Henderson said flatly that she took no guidance from Gray on the matter.

"Some will say it's Gray. I'm telling you unequivocally that he hasn't told me any direction to go in on this," she said in an e-mail. "I'm just going to do what I think is best. Sorry I don't have anything juicier to tell you."

Six students were arrested Nov. 23 and charged with raping a 15-year-old girl in a stairway in an unoccupied area of the sprawling school. The charges were dropped, but the incident shook the school community and was described by officials as emblematic of larger safety issues.

In addition to rehiring Jackson, the District has added six more police officers to Dunbar. It has also detailed two additional officers from the "Roving Leaders" unit of the Parks and Recreation Department to address ongoing neighborhood disputes that have affected the school climate. Unused portions of the building have been closed off, and more security cameras have been installed, Henderson said.

The District has also begun a series of sessions with students about sexual assault and inappropriate behavior.

Leonard said Saturday that he had requested such changes of the District for many months.

LaTanya Cherry, president of the Dunbar parents association, said that the school has suffered since the beginning of the academic year but that after Jackson's departure there was a downward spiral. "We were on the right track in June," she said. "Just to see this complete 360 is disheartening."

Leonard said Saturday that Jackson was removed for "undermining" efforts to improve the school. He did not elaborate.

While he had success with his Brooklyn school, Leonard, a former biology teacher, faced a significantly different situation in the District. He built Bedford from scratch, while Dunbar, once the educational pride of black Washington, is twice the size and has been a failing school for years.

Bedford was an application school, where students' grades, standardized test scores and attendance were screened by the city's education department. At Dunbar, Friends of Bedford was required to accept anyone with the legal right to attend.

At Bedford Academy, Leonard said, incoming ninth-graders attended a mandatory month-long "summer bridge" program to prepare them for the demands of high school. In the District, the program was not compulsory, and few attended.


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