About 15 students were watching a classmate solve a physics problem on the blackboard yesterday when the new secretary of education, Shirley H. Hufstedler, walked in and sat down in a front row seat in the green-carpeted area at Dunbar High School.
Wayne Walcott, a 16-year-old junior clad in blue jeans and a plaid shirt, sat in the back row and looked on at the secretary and her entourage of 30 reporters, photographers, and cameramen.
"It is distracting," said Walcott as a television cameraman blocked his view of the blackboard. "But it's fascinating. I think it's nice to see that she (Hufstedler picked Dunbar (to visit)."
Hufstedler, who became the nation's first secretary of education in December, was on her first high school visit since her appointment.
"I asked to see a high school and elementary school in the District," Hufstedler said, standing outside the school after the one-hour tour. "I am here and the District is here. It's very important for me to get a feel for what schools are like in the District, how people are responding."
An aide to the secretary said Dunbar was selected because if its long, distinguished history and its national reputation.
From 1870 to 1955, the school gained a reputation as an academically elite institution, drawing the brightest youngsters from throughout the city and sending about 80 percent of them to college.
Among its graduates are former Sen. Edward Brooke (R.-Mass); former HUD secretary Robert Weaver; Charles Drew, the discoverer of blood plasma; William Hastie, the first black federal judge; Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first black general; and Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.).
With the Supreme Court's desegregaton decision of 1954, Dunbar shifted from a goal of academic excellence to the concept of a neighborhood school, drawing students from all backgrounds.
Today between 30 and 40 percent of the Dunbar graduates go on to college. The school has about 1,400 students.
"This school is trying to carry forth the mission of Dunbar," Hufstedler said, speaking of its proud history. "There is more structure in learning (here) than in any school I have ever seen," she said.
Named for Paul Lawrence Dunbar, a black poet and novelist, the school is now located in a $20 million structure at 1301 New Jersey Ave. Built in 1977, the faculty replaced the old Dunbar High School, which was a block away at 1st and N streets NW.
In the first class Hufstedler visited, on advanced grammar class was discussing the composition of a sentence on the blackboard that read, "Decisions that the Supreme Court has made become part of the law of the land."
Hufstedler, a former judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in California who is often mentioned as a possible future appointment to the Supreme Court, told the students, "I'm delighted to see you are learning the building blocks of learning. When you have building blocks, you can be architects."
From the advanced grammar class, she visited an open space area where chemistry, physics and algebra classes were being taught. No walls separated the classes and the students sat in rows of desks. Open classrooms were a major educational inovation of the 1970s that were designed to stimulate youngsters' learning by taking them out of the regimented classroom and placing them in a wall-less setting.
"My car is not trained to hear over the babble of voices as these people are," she said on leaving the physics class. "They are getting a very solid course on how to concentrate."
From there, she went to the foreign language area and a street law class before stopping in a mathematics laboratory.
As she went from class to class, Hufstedler stopped to introduce herself to the class, shake the teacher's hand and thank the class for allowing her to sit in on their discussions.
In one class, Hufstedler was photographed with four students who had received high achievement awards.
Terry Turner, a 16-year-old 10th grader who was photographed with Hufstedler, said she was surprised by all the attention. "I heard something about the people who were supposed to be coming to school, but I didn't remember who they were. Who did you say she is?" she asked a reporter.
Hufstedler was led on the tour by senior class president Angel Duke and Student Government Association president Leonard Smith. She also visited the band room, art class, homemaking lab, and the child and family study center, a nursery where toddlers of mothers who attend Dunbar are housed.
Hufstedler told students and reporters gathered in the school library, "It will be foolish to say I understand Dunbar on a walk through as rapid as this. . . . I don't see any problems for me to concentrate on at Dunbar. It seems like you're doing a good job."
School Supt. Vincent Reed, who was along for the visit, said he was pleased with it. He said he did not "at this particular time" have any specific things that he expects from the secretary.
School principal Thomas Harper said, "The thing I think I wanted her to come away with was we have some very talented youth. They are doing some very positive things."
Angel Duke, the senior class president who has been accepted to Harvard and the University of Wisconsin said after the secretary's visit, "I thought it was extremely enlightening.