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October 14, 2013

First African-American High School Hopes New Building Will Raise Graduation Rates


Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C., was the first public school for African-Americans, and boasts a distinguished alumni list whose pictures decorate the halls of Dunbar’s new $122 million dollar state-of-the-art building. The new building is just one part of an initiative to turn around the troubled school that graduated only six out of ten of its seniors last year.

“I think environment is everything for children,” said Dunbar High School Principal Stephen Jackson. “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.

Since Dunbar was founded in 1870, it attracted African-American families from around the U.S. who would move to Washington just to give their kids the chance to attend. Students were taught by distinguished African-American scholars who could not find jobs outside the black community.

The end of segregation in 1954 also impacted Dunbar, turning it from a magnet school that could pick and choose its students to a neighborhood school that served the surrounding community.

“The truth of the matter is Dunbar was all black before 1954 and has been all black after 1954,” said Alison Stewart, who wrote a book about Dunbat. “It became a neighborhood school, and all the issues of the neighborhood came into the school.”

Alongside the school building, the Dunbar neighborhood is changing too, leading some to hope for a better future for the school.

Warm up questions
  1. How does your school building impact your desire to learn? What about a classroom?
  2. What do you know about historically African-American schools and Universities? Why might students of color want to attend these schools?
  3. What do you know about D.C. schools? What kind of reputation do they have? What is a magnet school?
Discussion questions
  1. Do you think just changing the school environment is enough to raise graduation rates? What other things may play a role in setting students up for success?
  2. The high school graduation rate for Dunbar is 60% while the U.S. average is 70.5%. Why do you think Dunbar students graduate less than the national average?
  3. Although it is against the law to segregate schools by race, many schools around the country have either all white students or all students of color. Why do so many schools end up this way? Should something be done about this?
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