The Washington Post

Autonomy considered as way to improve D.C.’s struggling Dunbar High School

The entrance of Dunbar High School in Washington is seen last fall after renovations at the school. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Dunbar High School, once renowned as an elite institution for African American students and now one of the District’s worst-performing schools, has been quietly working on a proposal to seek greater autonomy within the D.C. public school system, according to interviews and documents.

A group of Dunbar alumni and parents have spent months discussing what Dunbar needs to do to regain a reputation as a standout school. After considering and rejecting the idea of turning it into an independent charter school, the group is preparing to ask Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson for greater freedom from central office policies and procedures, according to draft talking points obtained by The Washington Post.

The reimagined Dunbar would exist within the D.C. school system but would exercise far more control over the people it hires, how it spends money and — perhaps most controversially — which students can attend.

Dunbar is a neighborhood high school, legally obligated to serve students who live nearby in a gentrifying section of Northwest Washington known as Truxton Circle, northwest of Union Station. The group is hoping to give administrators the power to select students, who would have to apply for admission. Such a change could make it far more difficult for neighborhood children to attend and probably would give Dunbar the ability to turn away the lowest-scoring and most-troublesome students.

Application-only high schools are in demand in the city; last year, nearly 1,200 students applied for 150 spots at the well-regarded School Without Walls. And shuttered D.C. schools have been resurrected as selective high schools.

But converting an existing neighborhood school into a self-governing, application-only institution would be a novel step. The concept echoes controversial “parent trigger” laws adopted in California and other states to give parents the power to transform struggling neighborhood schools into independent charters.

Although preliminary, the Dunbar proposal has been criticized as an attempt to raise test scores and graduation rates by shutting out the most challenging students, those the city struggles to help.

“It seems to be a shortcut to school improvement,” said a Dunbar community member, who was among those people who agreed to speak about the proposal on the condition of anonymity to protect their relationships at the school. “It’s resigning to the notion that it can’t be done: ‘We don’t want to be bothered with the difficult part of urban education. Let someone else deal with it.’ ”

Those involved in developing the Dunbar plan have quietly researched the possible move toward greater autonomy and have shared details with few others. Principal Stephen Jackson declined to comment on the proposal, as did Carrie Thornhill, a 1961 graduate, who said the group has made no final decisions and is not ready to discuss the matter publicly.

“Based on the rules that we established with the work that we’re doing, my group will not give me the authority to talk with the press,” Thornhill said.

A spokeswoman for Henderson also declined to comment. But Henderson has indicated that she is willing to entertain ideas for overhauling city high schools.

As chancellor, Henderson has campaigned for authority to create her own charter schools, arguing that complete freedom from the city bureaucracy might be necessary to turn around chronically underperforming schools. She has also spoken about the need to redesign the District’s high school offerings, floating the idea last year of replacing neighborhood high schools with citywide, theme-based academies that students would choose to attend based on their interests.

“We have to rethink our approach to high schools,” Henderson said in an October speech. “High schools, as they are, aren’t engaging and succeeding with all of our students.”

Dunbar was the country’s first public high school for African Americans, founded in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth. It produced generations of black leaders in such fields as law, education, science, engineering and civil rights. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) is a Dunbar graduate as is Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.).

But as schools were integrated and middle-class families fled to the suburbs, Dunbar could not escape the problems that beset so many urban schools, including high rates of poverty, truancy and academic failure.

In 2008, then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee brought in a private operator to turn the struggling school around, an experiment that ended two years later as concerns arose about increasing violence and other disorder.

By 2013, about six in 10 Dunbar students graduated on time. Fewer than 20 percent of Dunbar students were proficient in reading and math on the most recent citywide tests, far below the D.C. averages of 50 percent in reading and 53 percent in math.

Truancy rates are declining, according to administrators, but truancy remains a problem. More than one-third of the school’s students missed at least five weeks of school in 2012-13.

This school year, Dunbar left behind its 1970s-era building — a drab, prisonlike tower — and moved down the street into a striking, new $122 million campus. The transition triggered both hope and nostalgia, highlighting just how much Dunbar had changed.

The new building intensified the desire among alumni to revitalize the school.

“Dunbar needs additional resources, flexibility and latitude to produce the student outcomes it desires to live up [to] the name, reputation and legacy of Dunbar,” according to one of the prepared talking points.

James E. Pittman, chairman of the Dunbar Alumni Federation, said he is aware of preliminary discussions about Dunbar autonomy but said the federation has not been presented with any proposal for the school’s future.

But at Dunbar, the idea has become a topic of discussion. Two Dunbar employees, and the skeptical Dunbar community member who spoke to The Post, said that Jackson had mentioned and endorsed the idea of becoming an autonomous, selective school in conversations with staff members.

“It’s not been kept a secret,” said one employee, who does not favor the plan. “If the strategy is only to accept top students, I want nothing to do with it.”

Another employee expressed concern about turning the brand-new building into an asset that is off-limits to neighborhood children. But the idea “has a certain appeal,” the employee said, describing the pressure that teachers and administrators feel to raise achievement, particularly after Dunbar’s math and reading test scores fell last year as the city’s scores overall saw notable improvement.

In the District, the jobs of teachers and principals depend, in part, on their ability to lift student achievement as measured by standardized tests. That is an outsize challenge at schools such as Dunbar, where many students arrive years behind. A teacher might succeed in pushing a sophomore from a fourth-grade to an eighth-grade reading level, for example, but that student still would not be proficient on a 10th-grade exam. The situation punishes high schools that serve those students who are furthest behind, some educators say.

Following the model of other selective schools, the Dunbar plan calls for students to apply for admission to one of the school’s existing academies, which have themes such as education, public policy, and science, technology, engineering and math.

Students attending Dunbar now would be allowed to continue through graduation, according to the talking points, which also call for giving neighborhood children admissions preference. But if enrollment standards are established, Dunbar officials could have the authority to remove students who fail to live up to those standards.

Cathy Reilly, executive director of the Senior High Alliance for Parents, Principals and Educators, said she is not familiar with Dunbar’s proposal but believes that any move to convert a neighborhood school should be part of a larger vision for D.C. Public Schools, produced with input from the entire community.

“DCPS has to figure out, how do we serve all the kids in the city?” said Reilly, who expressed concern that establishing selective high schools serves to concentrate the most challenging students in other city schools. “It means that kids that don’t get into the magnet high schools are grouped without the benefit of the wide range of income, ambition and interests that you can get in a neighborhood high school.”

Six D.C. public high schools admit students by application only. The Dunbar group is seeking to emulate one in particular: the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in Georgetown, according to the talking points.

Ellington is a D.C. public school whose students graduate with a D.C. diploma, but it is run by a nonprofit board that includes representatives from two key partners: George Washington University and the Kennedy Center. The board sets school policies, hires and supervises the principal, with the chancellor’s consent, and directly hires and employs teachers, who are not bound by union work rules.

Charles Barber, president of the Ellington board, said the increased autonomy ensures that Ellington can offer a full program of both arts and academics.

Barber said he believes that other D.C. schools could benefit from additional flexibility, but he cautioned that with autonomy comes accountability, including responsibility for school finances and academic achievement. “The question is: Do you have the personnel who have the commitment and the resources to make it work?” Barber said.

Emma Brown writes about national education and about people with a stake in schools, including teachers, parents and kids.



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