Fear, hope and a failed school

Friday, December 17, 2010

Our politics sometimes isn't expressed in personalities and policies and laws and elections. Sometimes it's in a building.

This week, we learned that Dunbar Senior High School will be razed as soon as 2013. That fall, if all goes as planned, students will attend a new, glassy, airy Dunbar next door.

The Dunbar that now stands is anything but glassy and airy, and few will lament its demolition just 33 years after its opening. Certainly the raves delivered by a Washington Post architecture critic, reviewing an early version of the design in December 1971, never came to pass. Few students who have had to navigate its dark, concrete-clad ramps or learn math in its chaotic open classrooms would care to describe it as a "building of a natural, almost blushingly modest beauty" that would "give most promising shape not only to the stagnant fluid of education in our ghettos, but also the life of its neighborhood."

But in that building are lessons for politicians and planners and policymakers - not only the ones who build schools, but also the ones who govern what goes on inside them.

Then and now, the seemingly intractable problem of urban education cried out for a dramatic, simple solution. Forty years ago, they looked to a building to control what had become an uncontrollable learning environment, inhibiting student achievement. More recently, former schools chancellor Michelle A. Rhee looked to a private manager to take over the school and solve much the same problem.

Neither saw great success on New Jersey Avenue NW. Last week, Rhee's interim successor, Kaya Henderson, ousted the operator, New York's Friends of Bedford, after it was unable to get the school under control, and plans for the new Dunbar were unveiled.

The city's architects and administrators have abandoned the notion of engineering a better school with bricks and mortar. But the idea of a one-fell-swoop solution to better schools still tempts.

Robert C. deJongh can speak to how his best-laid plans went awry. He was a young architect when he started design work on the Dunbar building in the early '70s. He was finishing up at Howard University's architectural school at the time and working for the well-regarded Bryant & Bryant firm, which designed the building.

"To some degree, it was an experiment," deJongh recalls from his office on St. Thomas in his native U.S. Virgin Islands, where he has practiced since 1973.

The design process began only a couple years after the 1968 riots decimated inner-city neighborhoods, including the Seventh Street commercial district just a few blocks west of Dunbar. And the buildings subsequently designed for those neighborhoods, in essence, had to be riot-proof - made of sturdy concrete or metal or other materials that would be difficult to vandalize. Glass, and hence sunlight, was essentially prohibited.

"I remember having to fight for the windows we did have," deJongh said, adding that those that did make it into the final design were covered with heavy wire mesh.

Because the old Dunbar had to remain next door, leaving only a small parcel to fit an expected 1,600 students, deJongh and his colleagues had no choice but to design the school as a high-rise. Then there was the open-classroom concept, which was in vogue among school administrators at the time.

A buildings administrator with the public school system told The Post in 1971 that open designs would "force the teacher to be a consultant to the child" and "shift the emphasis from teaching to learning." It was also a recipe for unfocused and wandering students.

The combination of riot-proof design and open classrooms in a high-rise made Dunbar an exemplar of what deJongh calls a generation of "grim and brutal" structures "designed to keep occupants in and everyone else out."

Here's how one sophomore described the $20.6 million building on its opening day, in the spring of 1977: "It's the baddest structure in the District, and in Maryland and Virginia, too. It's a mean building, man." He meant that in a good way, but the building's weaknesses were just as soon evident. On opening day, pranksters sabotaged the building's escalators, shutting them down.

A Post reporter covering that first day called Dunbar an "expensive monument of hope." But instead of hope, deJongh said, "the rebuilding was filled with fear and the threats that [the riots] could happen again."

He hasn't designed another school, and he's never once set foot inside the one he did design. But since hearing from a reporter about Dunbar's scheduled demise, it's gotten him thinking. The design, deJongh said, must "reflect the place we want the project to take us to, not just where we want to avoid."

That would be a lesson reformers in search of easy fixes - whether architects, chancellors or politicians - would do well to heed.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company