Dunbar High School's sad descent into hard times

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, December 18, 2010;

What a shame it is that Dunbar Senior High School, noted for its academic rigor during the era of segregated schools, is now the duty station of several police officers backed by security cameras overseeing a student body enrolled in mandatory sessions designed to prevent sexual assault and other inappropriate behavior.

When I was coming along, Dunbar was the school you wanted to attend if you hoped to enter college and pursue a professional career. Dunbar's reputation was such that some black parents in other parts of the country sent their children to Washington just to attend the school.

My mother, a 1935 Dunbar graduate, was so set on attending the school that, lacking streetcar fare, she would walk there and back from her Foggy Bottom home at 716 23rd St. NW - a six-mile trek roundtrip.

She and the house on 23rd Street are gone. But her rich stories about life at Dunbar in the 1930s live on.

My sister and I shared in the wealth of Dunbar experiences when we went there in the 1950s. Excellence, preparedness, hard work and high standards were Dunbar's watchwords.

Contrary to what some believe, the Dunbar of our day was not a school for the city's black elite. If that had been true, the King family, and hundreds of children of the city's working class, would never have entered that citadel of learning.

The disparaging descriptions of today's Dunbar may be accurate, but they are hard to take.

Post My Post colleague, education columnist Jay Mathews recently described Dunbar as a "long-troubled" school with "a stubborn culture of absenteeism, tardiness and wandering the halls during class." Post education reporter Bill Turque wrote that Dunbar "has been a failing school for years."

But it's not the reporting about Dunbar that is distressing; it's what has occurred within the school.

In May 2009, the school system asked Dunbar students their opinions on their school. Forty-seven percent of the 331 students who responded disagreed with the statement "I feel safe at my school." More than 70 percent disagreed with "My school is orderly and in control." Almost 80 percent disagreed that "My school is clean and well maintained."

Our ancient Dunbar building at First and N Streets NW, demolished years ago, was always clean, and it was a source of school pride. It was a safe place to be, too.

Of course the Dunbar of old is gone. Ironically, it went the way of segregation, taking with it a cadre of outstanding veteran teachers and administrators, and students drawn citywide to Dunbar by choice.

Still, I don't regard this era's Dunbar, now housed in a depressing structure on New Jersey Avenue NW, as a failed school. Neither do many alumni who still support the school. My 2003 Pulitzer Prize award was donated to support college-bound students majoring in English, my mother's and sister's favorite subject.

I also didn't sense failure among the students when I spoke at Dunbar's 136th annual commencement in June 2007, also the 50th anniversary of my graduation.

That graduating class was impressive. Seventy percent of them were expected to attend college. That was close to the 1950s tradition of least 80 percent of Dunbar graduates going on to college.

The class of 2007 had earned at least $1.5 million in scholarships. The valedictorian had received scholarship offers worth more than $100,000. That didn't sound like failure.

However, the lower grades, I later learned, were faring less well.

In 2007, only 19 percent of Dunbar's sophomores scored "proficient" in math, while 23 percent of reached proficiency in reading. Notwithstanding the Class of '07, Dunbar, has not shown adequate progress under the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Dunbar's problems can be traced to more than its student body.

June 11, 2007, stands out in my mind for another reason. Dunbar's graduation day began at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium. I watched as Mayor Adrian Fenty, six months in office, warmly greeted School Superintendent Clifford Janey on the stage.

The day ended with Janey receiving a late-night call from Fenty telling him he was fired.

That may have been a key accelerant in Dunbar's burning. The next day, Fenty placed the school system under the leadership of Michelle Rhee. A year later, Rhee got rid of the school's principal, Dr. Harriet Kargbo.

Nothing but turmoil has followed.

Since the Fenty-Rhee school system takeover in June 2007, Dunbar "has had four principals," Safiya Simmons, assistant press secretary for the school system, told me.

Charles Sumner Lofton, a smart, strong leader, a pillar of the community, a dignified role model - also a Dunbar graduate - was the school's principal from 1948 until 1964.

Ah, but what does stuff like that matter to today's educational -reform hot shots?

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