TOPICS > Education

Historic School Strives to Reclaim Glory Days and Graduation Rates

September 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
In 1870, on the heels of civil war and the end of slavery, the nation's first African-American public high school opened just blocks from the U.S. Capitol. Today Dunbar High School is honoring its past while hoping to recapture what once made it great. Jeffrey Brown talks to Alison Stewart about her new book, "First Class."

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, the story of a troubled urban high school with a distinguished past. It’s now mounting a transformation effort as its progress is being watched closely.

All this fits right into coverage you can see throughout this weekend on PBS stations about the dropout problem, a series known as the American Graduate Project.

Jeffrey Brown has our report.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a school aiming for the future.

STEPHEN JACKSON, Principal, Dunbar High School: Good morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: When principal Stephen Jackson greeted students to Dunbar High in Washington, D.C., on a recent morning, it was to a brand-new $122 million dollar state-of-the-art building that boasts the latest in classroom and energy-saving technology.

It’s one part of the city’s effort to turn around a deeply troubled school system. Just blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Dunbar, on its former site next door, was known for low graduation rates, low test scores, and an often dangerous environment.

But the school, named for poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, is also one with a glorious, historic past. That’s now captured in a small museum in the new building and eagerly touted by principal Jackson to the outside world and to his students.

STEPHEN JACKSON: The people that really made this school what it was and what it is, they come alive, and so the kids can actually see who Mary Jane Patterson was, the first African-American woman to get a college degree in 1862. And she was the first African-American principal of a public high school in the country.

JEFFREY BROWN: Indeed, Dunbar, founded in 1870 as the country’s first black public high school, produced many firsts and famous alumni: Sen. Edward Brooke, jazz great Billy Taylor, the artist Elizabeth Catlett. And the roll call goes on.

ALISON STEWART, Author, “First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School”: First black general, first black graduate of the Naval Academy, second black of the Naval Academy …

… first black presidential Cabinet member. What do they all have in common? It’s this place. It’s Dunbar High School.

So that was a big question I wanted to have answered.

JEFFREY BROWN: Journalist Alison Stewart has told Dunbar’s story — how it happened and what followed — in a new book titled “First Class.”

For her, it began as a personal tale. Both her parents attended Dunbar and were shaped by the experience.

ALISON STEWART: My parents talked quite a bit about Dunbar. One, my mother was a schoolteacher. She had become a public schoolteacher, so part of it was to drill into my head, we have expectations of you. We expect you to do your best, because that’s what was expected of us.

The second part of the conversation about Dunbar was, as African-Americans, education is the key to a better life.

JEFFREY BROWN: Through the era of segregation, Dunbar was a magnet school focused on rigorous academics that, by the 1950s, was sending 80 percent of its students to college.

Dunbar built a reputation nationally and enticed African- American families from across the U.S. to move to Washington. In fact, Stewart’s father and his family moved from New York so he could attend.

Stewart describes it as a haven that helped foster a black middle class and gave smart and ambitious children an excellent education, but one where the outside world regularly intruded.

ALISON STEWART: There is a great feminist, Anna Julia Cooper, who was a principal of Dunbar from 1902 to 1906. And she used to fight fiercely for the school against a white board of education, which decided they didn’t really trust her, because she would break the rules. She would — they would tell her to replace Shakespeare with “Robinson Crusoe,” and she would say: I am not doing that. My scholars can do this.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dunbar scholars did do it, said Stewart. But they also had to deal with the harsh realities around them.

ALISON STEWART: That was just mind-boggling to me that you could have someone who could read Latin and speak French, and then some guy at a counter says, you can’t come in here.

JEFFREY BROWN: In one cruel, but important way, the lack of opportunity helped Dunbar. It’s faculty was stocked with teachers with graduate degrees, but few options for using them.

Colbert King is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Washington Post who enrolled at Dunbar in 1954.

COLBERT KING, The Washington Post: Those distinguished individuals who were among the best and the brightest couldn’t get positions, professional positions, in the wider world, so they were limited to the African-American community. We benefited from it by having that talent in our schools.

But, also, it was another indication of how unfair and unequal our society was, that such individuals didn’t have an opportunity to reach their full potential.

JEFFREY BROWN: In fact, Alison Stewart says she worried that parts of her book could be misinterpreted.

ALISON STEWART: It used to keep me up at night that someone would think that this book somehow said, wasn’t segregation great and didn’t things work out well?

JEFFREY BROWN: You were worried about this notion that — of looking back at a golden age for this school…

ALISON STEWART: Of romanticizing — yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: … and romanticizing it amidst what was the pain of segregation?


I think the thing that should be romanticized is the perseverance of the students who went here and what they were able to accomplish in the face of segregation. That’s what I think should be celebrated.

JEFFREY BROWN: The end of legalized segregation did impact Dunbar, however. It was turned into a traditional neighborhood school, no longer a magnet that could pick and choose its students. And the neighborhood was changing.

ALISON STEWART: Washington in the ’60s, in 1968, just imploded on itself after Dr. King died. U Street, which was the hub of middle-class black Washington, just burned out. And we know, ’70s, financial problems, ’80s, drugs, ’90s, violence, you can’t keep that out of a public school. You just can’t.

And the truth of the matter is Dunbar was all black before 1954 and has been all black after 1954. What changed about it was that it wasn’t a magnet school anymore. It became a neighborhood school, and all the issues of the neighborhood came into the school.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those problems continued to the present, as many students left the Washington public school system, and last year just six in 10 Dunbar students graduated on time.

Given all that, why the sense of hope today? One reason, clearly, is making the explicit link to the past. Plaques of famous alumni line the walls and floor of the new building. Some are left blank.

The message is a clear one to Dunbar senior Millante Patterson.

MILLANTE PATTERSON, Student: I’m going to be on one of those plaques one day. That’s what that means to me, hopefully.

JEFFREY BROWN: Patterson says the learning environment has changed drastically at Dunbar since the city invested in the new school.

MILLANTE PATTERSON: The old Dunbar was built without no walls, so now that we have walls, we can’t hear the other classes. The classrooms can lock. We can lock the doors. We can learn with no disruptions.

JEFFREY BROWN: As to the learning itself, principal Jackson pointed to a new ninth grade academy, intended to keep age-appropriate classrooms intact, and to a separate learning project aimed at those who’ve fallen behind.

In addition, next year, Dunbar will be part of a city initiative to create so-called career academies, offering specialized training to help students enter the workforce after graduation. In large part, though, it’s the new building itself, says Jackson, that offers the best chance to change the psychology and culture of the school.

STEPHEN JACKSON: I think environment is everything for children. I think environment is everything for people.

So this particular building, being new, it represents a glimmer of hope for children, so when they come into this building, they have a sense of pride, they have a sense of respect, but more importantly, they feel like they are in a great learning environment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Colbert King offered some cautious optimism.

COLBERT KING: Certainly, the building is good, but buildings don’t teach kids, so there is a limit there.

But the Dunbar community itself is changing. Demographically, the Dunbar community is changing. It is not the same neighborhood that was there when I attended. It wasn’t — it’s not the same neighborhood that was there 10 years ago. And that’s sort of the story of the city.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words, the hope is that Dunbar may become another kind of magnet school in a resurgent neighborhood once again. And if the new environment does attract students, there’s plenty of room for growth. The new school was built to house 1,100 students, almost double the enrollment today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Tomorrow, many PBS stations will broadcast live and stream on the Web a marathon of programming for American Graduate Day. It includes stories on initiatives such as early education, mentoring at-risk kids, and preparing students to be able to finish college. It also features personal testimonials from leaders and celebrities from a variety of fields.

The broadcast airs from WNET and Lincoln Center in New York. Check your local listings.