Photo by Martin Moulton.

A group of alumni and parents are proposing to turn Dunbar High School into a selective school. What’s behind this idea, and does it make sense?

Last month, the Washington Post reported that the group had spent months discussing the idea of giving Dunbar greater autonomy, including the ability to select its students, and intend to put the proposal before DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson.

Those in favor of the plan see it as a way of restoring the school to its former glory. Dunbar, the first public high school for black students, served the African-American elite during the era of segregation. Some students even moved to DC in order to attend.

The school had high academic standards, and many of its teachers held advanced degrees. Its alumni, six of whom have appeared on postage stamps, include leaders in law, medicine, science, and government.

Two recent developments may have spurred the Dunbar group to action. One is the construction of a new $122-million building with plaques bearing the names of illustrious alumni—along with others left blank in hopes that future alumni will make their mark.

The other is the publication of a book, First Class, that traces Dunbar’s history and contrasts it with the school’s present struggles. Last year the school’s on-time graduation rate was about 60%, and only about 20% of students were proficient in reading and math on DC’s standardized tests.

The author, Alison Stewart—whose parents went to the school—admits in the book that Dunbar is now in many ways a typical high-poverty urban high school. But, she writes, the sight of what it had come to was “shocking given Dunbar’s rich history.”

Do we need another selective high school?

It’s understandable that alumni want to restore the school’s once stellar reputation. But sentiment aside, does the District need another selective high school? DCPS already has 6 such schools with a combined enrollment of about 4,000 students. (Neighborhood high schools, which must take all comers, enroll about 7,000 students, and another 6,400 attend charter high schools.)

It’s true that the two most selective DCPS high schools, School Without Walls and Banneker, get far more applicants than they admit. Last year Walls, in Foggy Bottom, received over 1,000 applications for a class of 130 to 150, according to a spokesperson for the school.

But a selective Dunbar would be more likely to draw students from the applicant pool for Banneker, in Columbia Heights near Howard University. It’s not clear how different Banneker’s applicant pool is from that at Walls, but Banneker’s student body is 85% black and 60% low-income. Walls, in contrast, is 45% black and only 17% low-income.

Banneker received about 700 applications last year and, like Walls, ended up with a class of 150, according to a school employee who identified herself as Ms. Francis. Those figures, standing alone, seem to indicate that another selective school is needed.

But Francis also said that Banneker takes all applicants who meet the school’s qualifications, which are based on grades, test scores, teacher recommendations, and an interview. (Unlike Walls, it has no entrance exam.) “If all the applicants were qualified,” Francis said, “we would find a way to take them all.”

So are there enough “qualified” students to fill up Dunbar, which has a capacity of 1,100, as well as the existing selective schools? No doubt many students apply to both Banneker and Walls, along with another application-only school, McKinley Tech, which is almost as selective as Banneker. So the applicant pool isn’t even as large as it appears.

Dunbar would probably end up offering admission to students who, rather than being truly gifted or advanced, are the ones who show up for school, do the work, don’t cause trouble, and aren’t classified as special ed or English language learners.

Clearly, those kids deserve every chance they can get, and it would probably be easier to educate them if they were in a school by themselves. But once those kids are gone, the neighborhood schools will end up with higher concentrations of the most challenging students.

Charter schools are sometimes accused of “cream-skimming,” but the argument actually applies with greater force to selective public schools. They have the legal right to skim the cream, whereas by law charter schools must admit all applicants or, if they’re oversubscribed, hold a random lottery.

In fact, according to the Post, the Dunbar group initially considered turning the school into a charter. It’s not clear why they decided against that, but perhaps it’s because they knew they wouldn’t be able to select their students.

School turnaround without selectivity?

So, what to do with Dunbar? One possibility would be to give the Dunbar group much of what it’s asking for, but just not the right to be selective in admissions. According to the Post, the group is also seeking more autonomy for the school in hiring and spending decisions.

Freedom from DCPS restrictions, including at least some teachers union requirements, might help turn the school around. That was the theory behind the move some months ago to give chartering authority to DCPS in addition to the Public Charter School Board, which is now the only body in DC with the power to create charter schools. That initiative seems to have died, at least for now, but it’s possible Henderson could achieve much of the same objective administratively.

But just giving a school more autonomy is no guarantee it will change for the better. You need a strong leader who knows what it takes to reinvent a school’s culture. And it’s possible Dunbar Principal Stephen Jackson fits the bill.

In the book First Class, he’s quoted as telling a group of Dunbar alumni that he had “already turned around two schools in New York” before coming to Dunbar. Stewart is more cautious, saying that at one of them, a violence-plagued high school in Mount Vernon, Jackson introduced turnaround strategies that “met with varying levels of success.”

Another possibility would be to bring in an outside partner to turn the school around. DCPS has done that at Stanton Elementary in Ward 8, and the results are promising. But DCPS tried a similar experiment at Dunbar itself under former Chancellor Michelle Rhee that ended in disaster, so the school may be wary of embarking on that path again.

Or the school could apply to the Public Charter School Board to become a charter. There’s at least one precedent for that: Paul PCS in Ward 4 used to be Paul Junior High. Although it was probably never as low-performing as Dunbar, it’s now one of the District’s highest-performing charters and is adding a high school.

A possible model

It’s not easy to turn around any low-performing school, and high schools are the toughest. Students come in years below grade level, with sometimes dangerous behaviors. No doubt it’s far less challenging when a school can select its students.

But perhaps it can be done. One model to look to is Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA), a charter school in Anacostia that is the District’s highest-performing non-selective high school. Its demographics aren’t all that different from Dunbar’s, with 80% of its students low-income as compared to Dunbar’s 99%.

TMA has some advantages that Dunbar may never have, including private contributions from a number of DC law firms. And it’s a school that started from scratch, not one that needed to be turned around. But even if Dunbar achieved only a fraction of TMA’s success, it would be doing far better than other neighborhood high schools.

Dunbar may never recapture its old academic glory. That was partly an artifact of segregation, and in many ways Dunbar’s former role in the black community is now played by Banneker. But if Dunbar could show other high-poverty urban schools how to turn themselves around without excluding their toughest students, it could once again be a beacon of hope.

Natalie Wexler is a DC education journalist and blogger. She chairs the board of The Writing Revolution and serves on the Urban Teachers DC Regional Leadership Council, and she has been a volunteer reading and writing tutor in high-poverty DC Public Schools.