Dunbar High worse off since contractor's hiring

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010

More than two years after an outside contractor was hired to run one of the city's most venerable schools, D.C. officials said Tuesday that Dunbar High remains plagued by a litany of troubles: Nearly half the senior class is not on track to graduate, more than 100 students are taking courses they've already passed and the campus is growing increasingly unsafe.

Interim Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson made those findings and others public to justify her decision last week to oust Friends of Bedford, the New York-based contractor that former chancellor Michelle A. Rhee retained to turn around the 822-student school.

"In general, the building seems to be in turmoil at all times," Henderson wrote in a termination letter made public this week.

"Well after the school day begins, many students are wandering around the building, strolling to class with absolutely no sense of urgency," she added.

While problems at Dunbar have festered for months, the situation has turned into an early test of how Henderson and Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D) will respond to school reform efforts that appear to go awry.

On Tuesday, after a week of news describing disorder and disarray at the school several months into the academic year, Gray and Henderson joined Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) in an attempt to turn the page. They gathered at the school on New Jersey Avenue NW to unveil the design for a long-planned $100 million new Dunbar to open in fall 2013.

Named for the renowned African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar and located less than two miles from the U.S. Capitol, Dunbar was the nation's first municipally funded public high school for blacks. But it has spent years in decline. By the time Rhee hired Bedford, the school had failed for five consecutive years to make adequate yearly progress in test scores under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

The contractor was given broad latitude in hiring, scheduling and curriculum even though Dunbar remained subject to D.C. laws and labor contracts. But Henderson said the school's record, as well as classroom observations and complaints from teachers and parents, led her to conclude that the environment at Dunbar had "deteriorated significantly."

George Leonard, chief executive of Bedford, which is still responsible for overseeing the city's Coolidge High, said he disagreed with Henderson's views on Dunbar but would back her decision.

"I'm going to support everything she's doing," Leonard said. "Her position as [interim] chancellor is difficult enough as it is. I want to help."

Some of the data show Dunbar's troubles are comparable to those in the school system's eight other neighborhood high schools with open enrollment.

Although 45 percent of Dunbar's seniors are designated "potential non-graduates" - meaning they would not get a diploma even if they pass every course for which they are currently scheduled - the citywide average for the open-enrollment high schools is 39 percent.

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