On Monday, District officials, DC Public School leaders, a host of celebrated alumni, and current students will begin a week-long celebration of the $122 million new Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School in Ward 5.


The new Dunbar High School. All photos by the author except where indicated.



Although school won’t start until August 26th, a ribbon-cutting and dedication will take place on Monday from 3:30 to 5:30 pm. The school will offer tours of the new building, which has a capacity of over 1100 students, from noon to 3 pm Tuesday through Friday.

Originally called the “Preparatory High School for Colored Youth,” the school was established in 1870 after officials resisted efforts to integrate the District’s public schools. As the first public high school for non-whites in the nation, it attracted students from across the country.

The building moved several times before settling at its present site on New Jersey Avenue in 1916, when it was named after Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African-American poet. Sadly, the 1916 building was replaced in the 1970s with a structure in the brutalist style, which many observers compared to a prison. In recent years, the physical condition of the now-vacant building had deteriorated. 

The father of African-American history, Carter G. Woodson, is just one of many celebrated graduates of the school. Although the school has recently fallen on hard times, with only about 17% of students scoring proficient on the recent DC CAS assessments, it once played a crucial role in bolstering the African-American middle class. The school’s glorious past is the subject of a recent book.

Noyes Education Campus and Walker-Jones Education Campus and Langley Elementary School are the current feeder schools for Dunbar.

Opening-week activities could lead to parking and traffic problems in the neighborhood, but the District’s Department of Transportation is working to ensure that things go smoothly. Dunbar Principal Stephen Jackson, who has worked hard over the past year to deliver a handsome new building, hopes to strengthen relations with the surrounding community.


The new Dunbar with the old school behind it.


But it’s still not clear that the public will have access to the new building’s eight-lane pool, the only indoor pool in the immediate area. DCPS and the Department of Parks and Recreation (DPR) are working on the terms of an agreement, and some have suggested that an outside vendor may be brought in to manage the pool.  Early-morning and evening access to the pool would be a tremendous amenity for local families, seniors, and athletes.

The old school will be demolished next month.


Interior demolition and asbestos abatement of the old Dunbar building has begun. The structure will be razed in mid-September, after which it will be replaced with a state-of-the-art stadium and artificial-turf athletic fields.


Rendering of the new stadium from EE&K.


A Capitol Bikeshare station is planned for the perimeter of the campus. Given that many young students in the area own bikes, it’s great to know that bike racks will be installed in the front and rear of the building as well as in the basement-level parking garage. These amenities will promote fitness for the student body and help mitigate traffic congestion and hazards in the surrounding community.


Metal detectors in the new school’s lobby.


Unfortunately, the new Dunbar will still have the metal detectors that are in place at other DCPS high schools. It is a sad reality that this level of security is necessary in a school named after one of the nation’s greatest poets. Perhaps Mr. Dunbar’s portrait, which watches over those who enter the spectacular grand atrium, will inspire students to have more respect for each other, for the legacy of the institution, and for the new facility than the security gates suggest.

Update: DCPS has informed us that the following will be the complete list of feeder schools for Dunbar: Burroughs EC, Langdon EC, McKinley EC, Noyes EC, Walker-Jones EC, and Wheatley EC. Although Langley Elementary is listed as a feeder school on the DCPS profile for Dunbar, as of this year the school will serve only pre-K to 5th grade students.