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From Ivy League to NBA.

Rodney McDaniel is a senior at Dunbar High School in Washington, D.C. He is the captain of its football team, which is the best in the city. He recently made the Washington Post's "All Metropolitan" high school list for his skill on the field. Asked what courses he takes, Rodney says, "First, I take Civil Service Prep. It gets you ready to take the government exam in case you ever want to work in the government. Then I take Life Skills, SAT Prep, English 4, Swimming, Driver's Education, Spanish, and Individual Sports."

It is clear that Rodney is more comfortable talking about football than his classes. He turns the conversation to his coach, the long practices, his team's winning record. When asked what his favorite course is, however, Rodney suddenly seems alert. He replies without hesitating: "English 4. Now we're on Beowulf; it's an epic poem. I like it."

Rodney McDaniel evidently has the ability to take harder courses than he does. But he, like other students at Dunbar, has been held to low standards by teachers unwilling or unable to demand more. Never required to truly exert himself in the classroom, he naturally gravitates to where the standards for success are higher, the football field.

From Academic to Athletic Glory

Dunbar was once one of the nation's great schools. From 1870 to the early-1960s, this public high school produced students as well-educated as those in any secondary school in the country. Using limited resources, and working under the limitations of segregation, its teachers pushed their pupils -- all of them black -- to heights of achievement unthinkable in most urban schools today. Dunbar's successes showed not only that disadvantaged black students from the inner city could be academically accomplished, but also that they could be taught the skills necessary to succeed later in the professional world.

Today, by contrast, Dunbar is known for its athletic rather than its academic prowess. Its basketball program is among the top 10 in the country, and the best in Washington. The team's record this year was 33-1. During the 1980s, at least five Dunbar graduates played professional basketball, three in the NBA. But while its athletes have made headlines, the rest of the school has deteriorated inexorably. A smaller percentage of Dunbar students go to college now than did 60 years ago. The average Dunbar graduate today is likely to be poorly educated and uninspired by academic subjects. For the first 90 years of its existence, most Dunbar students were motivated to succeed academically; those who were not pushed by their teachers. Today, the students who are academically self-motivated still succeed. Those who are not play basketball.

Generations of Black Pioneers

Dunbar was the country's first black high school. In 1870, a group of freed slaves founded the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth in downtown Washington with an initial enrollment of 45 students. Over the years the school went by several names and moved to different locations, before becoming the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in 1916. Even as its outward elements changed, however, the school's mission remained constant: to educate the most capable and ambitious black students in Washington, and to prepare them for college and life beyond.

Dunbar did this job well. Moreover, it did it before any other black high school. The first black senator in this century, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts; the first black general, Benjamin O. Davis; the first black cabinet member, President Johnson's HUD Secretary Robert C. Weaver; and Dr. Charles Drew, the man who discovered blood plasma, all graduated from Dunbar. Scores of other Dunbar graduates became doctors, lawyers, university professors, and successful civil servants. Dunbar graduates formed the core of Washington's large black middle class. City council members, local preachers, and the general manager of the subway system all went to Dunbar. By 1964, for instance, almost every public school in the city was run by a Dunbar alumnus -- no fewer than 32 principals and superintendents.

In an age before affirmative action, Dunbar sent an amazing number of its graduates to prestigious colleges. According to Hoover Institution scholar Thomas Sowell, from 1918 to 1923, 15 students went on from Dunbar to graduate from Ivy League schools. Between 1892 and 1954, Amherst alone admitted 34 students from Dunbar. "Of these," Mr. Sowell wrote in a 1974 Public Interest article, "74 per cent graduated, and more than one-fourth of these graduates were Phi Beta Kappas."

The class of 1949's college placement is an example of the academic success of Dunbar students. In that year, Dunbar sent one graduate each to Colby, Columbia, Dartmouth, Georgetown, Harvard, MIT, Smith, and Yale. A total of five went to Bates and NYU. One hundred fifteen went to Howard University. Of the 310 students who graduated from Dunbar that year, 267 went to college, five joined the military, three got married, and only 35 went immediately to work.

Dunbar graduates arrived at these colleges well prepared. Robert C. Weaver wrote that after graduating from Dunbar, "I went to Harvard College, where many of my classmates had been trained in some of the best preparatory schools in the nation. I found myself on the whole about as well able to survive in the college as were they."

Dunbar's teachers during its early years were no less impressive. Because blacks were excluded from the faculties of most colleges, Dunbar had its pick of highly educated instructors. Many of its teachers had advanced degrees; several had Ph.D's. Dunbar's first male principal, Richard T. Greener, was also Harvard's first black graduate. His successor, Mary Jane Patterson, was the first black woman to graduate from an American college. Subsequent principals were educated at Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, and Oberlin -- all before 1910.

They Came. They Learned. They Conquered.

Dunbar's early curriculum was rigorous. The school emphasized languages, and for years taught Latin, French, German, Greek, and Spanish. Two years of foreign languages were required, but many students exceeded this requirement. In the first semester of 1945, 485 students -- or more than a third of the school -- were enrolled in Latin, bringing the average class size in that subject to 40. A letter sent by the Dunbar alumni association to the superintendent of Washington schools in 1946 claims that more students wanted to take German than the school could teach.

Dunbar's rigorous curriculum was not limited to languages. During the 1940s, requirements for graduation from Dunbar included biology, chemistry, physics, American history, and algebra. Over 300 students took plane geometry in one semester. Even the extracurricular organizations were academically oriented. The school sponsored student-run banking, biology, chemistry, contemporary literature, and library clubs.

Dunbar offered tough courses to prepare students for higher education. Sereta Staley, a graduate of the class of 1932, says that most students entering Dunbar intended to go to college. "Dunbar had excellent teachers. They were very well trained. It was really a college-preparatory school." Judith Webb, a District of Columbia Department of Education employee who graduated in 1959, estimates that "95 percent of the students at Dunbar when I went there went on to college."

Unlike public high schools today, Dunbar's students came from neighborhoods all over the city. The school's reputation drew children from every corner of Washington, as well as from the suburbs in northern Virginia, and sometimes even other cities. Also, children could come to Dunbar at almost any age. Students as old as 18 entered ninth grade, while achievers as young as 15 graduated from the school. Rita Greenfield, who took a streetcar across the city to Dunbar every day until she graduated in 1946, says that black children who wanted an education in the humanities had little choice but to go to Dunbar. "It was the only authentically academic school we had."

Eunice Newton, a 1930 graduate, says that her father brought his family to Washington in 1898 from Florida because of the reputation of the city's public schools, particularly Dunbar. "When I went to Dunbar, parents had a fantastic respect for education." Mrs. Newton, who spent her life teaching in public schools, says things have changed radically. "Now, all my friends send their children and grandchildren to private schools."

Historically, Dunbar had no entrance test. Admission was entirely self-selective. The school's reputation for difficulty effectively weeded out most students unable to contend with its demands. According to Rita Greenfield, administrators did not hesitate to transfer failing students to other, less academic schools. "Those who couldn't make the grade were sent to Phelps Vocational School or Cardozo Secretarial School." Technical schools like these gave students in Washington alternatives to the college preparatory education offered at Dunbar, and so allowed the latter to remain an elite school.

"Does Your Father Know...?"

Dunbar had few of the disciplinary problems that beset modern schools. This is partly the result of changing times -- there were no crack dealers loitering outside Dunbar in the 1940s. At least as important, though, was the involvement of parents. Lonise Robinson, who went to Dunbar in the 1940s, says students were afraid to be disruptive in class because of the school's direct ties to parents. "If you had a problem at school, you'd have another problem when you got home because the teachers would call your parents." Mrs. Robinson says her father went to PTA meetings regularly and monitored her studies. "If my brother and I didn't have any homework to do, he'd make us read the paper." For Dunbar students of Mrs. Robinson's generation, academic success was not considered exceptional. "The teachers at Dunbar expected the students to do well. The idea was that you were going to go on. You were going to make something of yourself."

Another Dunbar graduate says the purpose of school was clear to students. "You never came to school without your homework. You went to school to learn, not to act up." The school, she says, brought even the most minor infractions to the attention of parents. "If you wore a shirt to school that wasn't quite right, you'd be called in. They'd ask, `Does your father know you have that shirt on?' We were always afraid the school would call home. You can't even imagine that kind of interest in students now."

Over the years, Dunbar gained a reputation as a school that catered largely to middle-class and light-skinned blacks. Both of these criticisms are partly true, but misleading. Washington always has had a large black middle class, sustained by stable, well-paying government jobs. And, at least according to local legend, many of the most successful black families in the city were light-skinned or mulatto.

Still, a significant number of Dunbar students fit neither of these categories. In her 1965 book, The Dunbar Story, former Dunbar teacher Mary Gibson Hundley writes that "The economic level of the students was that of the lower middle class. There were always poor but promising students ... who were encouraged to stay in school by dedicated teachers." According to Lawrence Graves, who graduated from Dunbar in 1940, "I grew up at the bottom of the economic totem pole and I went to Dunbar. Doctors and lawyers sent their children there, but the school was for anybody who was interested in academics."

Although there has been much criticism of Dunbar for being a school for light-skinned blacks, there is no evidence that darker students were held back because of their color. Dunbar graduate Lonise Robinson admits that students did tend to divide into cliques along color lines, but claims this had little bearing on a child's success at Dunbar. "My husband has dark-brown skin and he was a star at Dunbar. My father before me was a dark-skinned man and he did well there. There was no discrimination because of color from teachers, or when it came to grades." Despite claims to the contrary, the facts indicate that Dunbar was a success at least partly because it was a meritocracy.

Many of its alumni trace Dunbar's decline to the desegregation of schools in Washington. Integration effectively ended the school's ability to draw only the most talented and motivated black children in the city. Likewise, it allowed Dunbar's best teachers to take jobs in other high schools or colleges that before were off-limits to blacks. During the same period Dunbar became a neighborhood school, and therefore had to rely almost exclusively on the surrounding neighborhood for its enrollment, Washington lost much of its black middle class to the surrounding Maryland suburbs. Of those who stayed in the city, many lived outside of the school's immediate neighborhood. Overnight, they found it difficult to send their children to Dunbar.

Delusions of Grandeur

Dunbar has changed significantly in the last three decades. Nonetheless, the school's current principal -- and valedictorian of the Class of 1962 -- Eva Rousseau is proud of her school. She boasts that Dunbar has been the recipient of three consecutive "Golden School Awards," and adds that there have been no expulsions from the school in the past two years. "Because I have been able to link what used to be and tried to work on the present," she says, "I have been able to maintain standards, and certainly make certain we didn't lower standards." According to Mrs. Rousseau, little of substance has changed over the years. "Dunbar is now a neighborhood school, but our standards are just the same."

For all of her apparent confidence in Dunbar, Mrs. Rousseau will not allow visits to classes or interviews with current teachers. She is plainly hesitant to grant an interview herself, and doesn't want to see a story written on Dunbar, telling me, "I don't know that you could see Dunbar the way that I see it or give it the kind of balanced reporting that I could give it." Nor will she provide basic written information on the school, such as a detailed budget, the school rule book, or a list of which colleges members of the class of 1992 attend.

Principal Rousseau is virtually alone in believing Dunbar has maintained its old standards. Certainly most alumni are not convinced. For many old graduates, the school's new building, built in the 1970s, is a symbol of what has happened to their alma mater. The new Dunbar is a massive brown concrete building that looks remarkably like a county jail. It has few windows on the ground floor. All of its outside doors are closed and locked. The steel doors have motel-type peep holes that allow callers to be inspected before they are admitted. Despite the principal's reassurances that violence in unknown at the school -- "We don't have violence; we empower students" -- visitors must walk through a metal detector into the foyer before signing in at the security desk.

Few alumni who can avoid it now enroll their children in Dunbar. Rita Greenfield, an enthusiastic Dunbar alumna and the communications director for her class, admits "I wouldn't want to send my kids there today." Lonise Robinson has come to the same conclusion. A third-generation Dunbar graduate who taught in Washington public schools for 33 years, she describes herself as "a supporter of public education." She also loves Dunbar and proudly points out that her grandmother graduated from the school in 1895. Still, she and her husband didn't trust Dunbar to educate their kids; all three of their sons went to Catholic high schools. She doesn't regret the choice. Two of the boys recently graduated from the University of Pennsylvania.

Root of Decline

Almost none of the qualities that made Dunbar a great institution for 90 years exist at the school today. At the root of Dunbar's decline are the lower standards to which students there now are held. As the prestige of Dunbar faded in the late-1950s and early-1960s, fewer teachers were willing to push students to their academic limits. Perhaps more important, fewer parents insisted that their children do their homework, pay attention in class, and excel in academic subjects.

Thelma Montgomery is in a good position to evaluate the change in teacher's attitudes. Mrs. Montgomery graduated from Dunbar in the 1946 and went on to a teacher's college. She later earned a master's degree in linguistics from Georgetown University. In 1969, she came back to Dunbar as a teacher, where she stayed until retiring in 1980. Her first impressions of the new Dunbar were unpleasant. "I was shocked when I saw the change. When I was at Dunbar, most of the teachers who taught us could have taught on the college level. The level of teaching had declined." Teachers became less effective, she says, simply because few of them believed their students were capable of excellence. "The classroom is the product of the attitudes of the teachers. Some teachers had the attitude, `these kids aren't going to make it anyway.'" Even those who considered students capable were themselves often lazy. "The teachers felt protected by the union and they didn't try hard. No group should protect incompetence."

The results of this drop in teacher quality were predictable. "The student body was not nearly so academic as when I went there. When I went to Dunbar, I took Latin and German at the same time. You didn't find anybody doing that when I taught there. There wasn't an emphasis on language." She says that during her teaching years, many students "stopped coming to school and they were failing. Most kids did not go on to college."

Shortly after she came to Dunbar, Mrs. Montgomery started a special humanities course, designed to teach advanced-level courses to college-bound students. Admission to the course was by invitation only. Mrs. Montgomery interviewed prospective students personally to make certain they were committed to the course. The classes were difficult, requiring more homework than ordinary subjects. Yet, the students were receptive. Mrs. Montgomery even found that the higher standards she set for her students had an effect on their parents. "I never had any trouble with those parents. They were always involved."

Less With More

Parents like those of the children in Mrs. Montgomery's humanities course are the exception at Dunbar today. Recalling her days at Dunbar in the late-1970s, one teacher says, "I wound up going to a lot of homes trying to get parents to come in and talk to teachers. It was frustrating. You really had to pull eye teeth to get cooperation from parents." Dunbar senior Kermit Guest sometimes goes to PTA meetings with his grandmother, with whom he lives. He says the largest meeting he has attended had no more than 50 people present. Although his grandmother forces him to complete all of his studies, Kermit says most students know the school will not contact their parents if they do not work. "When you don't do your homework, you just say `I didn't do it.'" Dunbar does send "deficiency notices" home to parents when their children get into academic trouble. According to Kermit Guest, however, these do little good because they are only sent when students "fail or are about to fail." This lack of consistent contact with parents has direct consequences in the classroom. In the words of one Dunbar senior, "Some classes are just too noisy to learn."

Dunbar still offers many of the courses it did 50 years ago. Like all public schools in Washington, Dunbar is required to teach a core curriculum that includes the basic subjects: English, history, foreign language, math, and science. In addition to these courses, Dunbar has added a variety of different and sometimes esoteric electives. These range from "Clothing and Textiles" (I and II) and "Street Law," to advanced placement calculus. Dunbar is also the only public school in the city to offer instruction in Arabic. While it is difficult to know how many students choose which electives -- Principal Rousseau repeatedly refused to divulge the breakdown -- an informal survey suggests that more students opt for "Career Awareness" than for Advanced Grammar. One student claimed to be the sole pupil in Latin III.

If academic standards at Dunbar have declined, it has not been for lack of funds. As compared to the Dunbar of old, the school today does less with more. In 1946, Dunbar employed only 45 teachers for a total enrollment of 1,529 students. Cramped conditions forced teachers to teach classes of up to 90 students. Today, 21 administrators and 64 teachers -- who, on average, make $38,000 a year, plus retirement benefits -- operate a school that enrolls fewer than 1,000 students. Average academic class size at Dunbar is less than 20. In addition to its more than $6 million in operating funds, Dunbar receives grants and teaching materials from a variety of different corporate and government sponsors, including General Motors, IBM, NASA, and TRW.

Lost in Space

One of Dunbar's showcase academic programs is a "space lab," which, according to the school, is the only one of its kind and "was designed by students in conjunction with NASA engineers." The "USS Dunbar" is a specially designed classroom that, in the words of Principal Rousseau, "is able to get signals from outer space." Despite this impressive description, few students -- including several who had direct experience with the space lab -- were able to explain the mission of the USS Dunbar. One ex-student, a 1991 graduate who was "second in command" at the lab, said his experiences there piqued his interest in the planet Mars. Beyond that, however, he was unsure of exactly what the lab was for. Another student said the lab was somehow connected to "that big telescope in space." A third student's explanation was more precise. "The USS Dunbar brought a lot of media attention to the school."

Perhaps the best gauge of the effectiveness of Dunbar's curriculum is its test scores. In 1991, 78 students were enrolled in eight advanced placement courses. Of those, only one received a passing grade on the cumulative test given at the end of the course. In that same year at Dunbar, the average score on the SAT -- a test presumably taken only by those interested in going to college -- was 379 in math and 331 on the verbal section, both of which are almost 100 points below the national average. These scores do not seem to have been raised by the three courses at Dunbar devoted solely to teaching students to take tests.

The one bright spot in Dunbar's academic program is its pre-engineering program. Begun in 1982, the program is more rigorous than the school's ordinary course of study. Pre-engineering students are required to take four years of math and science, and generally have more homework. Most of them go to college. The program has proven that students who are self-motivated, ambitious, and disciplined can succeed at Dunbar.

Derrick Stevenson is one of these students. Mr. Stevenson takes hard courses -- physics, computer science, pre-calculus -- and gets good grades. He is also the captain of the tennis team. Three days a week he works with his church group. Mr. Stevenson admits that pre-engineering students are responsible for making themselves work hard. "If people show a habit of not caring, the teacher will mention it to them, but if they don't want to change it's on them." According to Mr. Stevenson, teacher's expectations can be low, even in pre-engineering courses. "Some teachers give you credit just for turning in the homework. They give you credit for taking the initiative to do it."

Kanti Ford, valedictorian of the class of 1989 and a chemistry major at Yale, confirms that students in pre-engineering tend to be those who would do well anywhere. "I put a lot of pressure on myself [to succeed] in pre-engineering." For regular students at Dunbar, those not naturally inclined to high academic achievement, the temptation exists to just get by. Bryant Hughes, a 1991 graduate, puts it simply: "There isn't a whole lot offered to kids who aren't pre-engineering students."

Miss Practice, You're Off The Team

The blueprint for Dunbar's rebirth may lie within its walls. As the school's academic standing has fallen, its athletic program has become famous. The basketball team has had winning seasons for the last five years. It is now the best in the mid-Atlantic region and ninth best in the nation. Likewise, the football team is the best in Washington.

Michael McLeese has been the basketball coach at Dunbar for six years. His formula for success is simple. The team does well, he says, because the players "work hard and understand their roles. I tell the players to keep things in perspective, to be on time, and to act appropriately." Practice is from 4:45 to 7:00, five days a week from November 1 to March 1. Despite the long hours, the Coach has no problem with attendance. "Everybody shows up. They'd be off the team if they didn't. You have to practice to play on the team." This hard work has paid off. Anthony Jones, John Duren, and Craig Shelton all graduated from Dunbar to play in the NBA during the 1980s.

On top of demanding hard work on the field, Mr. McLeese requires his players to try hard in academics. No student with less than a 2.0 average can play basketball. "I tell the players that they must be solid citizens and conduct themselves in a positive manner. No cutting class. Their standards have to be higher. They have a lot of status and they have to be aware of that."

Despite its success, the basketball team is chronically short of money. Coach McLeese says the team "absolutely does not" get enough funds from the city to continue the program. So, to supplement its income, the team operates the concession stand at its games. Mr. McLeese says the money it makes allows the team to pay for the equipment it needs.

Dunbar's athletic teams are so good, in part, because the culture that surrounds the school values sports more than studies. In addition to this, though, Dunbar's coaches know something many teachers have forgotten: Students must be pushed to their limits to produce excellence. In many ways, the basketball team operates as the old Dunbar once did. It has uncompromising standards, it raises its own money when it doesn't have enough, and it sends its best pupils to the Harvard of athletics, the NBA. Further, its successes foster success. As recent Dunbar graduate Diallo Stroughter says, "They are motivated because they keep winning."

Proven Formula For Success

The deterioration of Dunbar is especially poignant for the thousands of graduates who knew the school when it was great. While the old Dunbar produced heroes like General Benjamin O. Davis and innovators like Dr. Charles Drew, the modern Dunbar graduated Rayful Edmunds, Washington's Al Capone of cocaine, who now is serving a life term in federal prison.

It is true that many of the changes at Dunbar are symptoms of problems in the greater society. It is equally true, however, that the Dunbar of old had a proven formula for success that is still applicable today. Hard work, a no-nonsense curriculum, and parental involvement created a school that, for a time, stood as an example to all those who thought black city kids were incapable of high achievement. Urban successes, particularly in education, are more important now than they have ever been; 100 city high schools across the country that operated at the caliber of the early Dunbar might make the difference for a generation of black children. By heeding its past, Dunbar could once again inspire greatness.
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Title Annotation:Dunbar High School
Author:Carrlson, Tucker
Publication:Policy Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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