Education Opinion

Turnaround, Bright Eyes

By Sara Mead — December 15, 2010 1 min read
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Per previous on the rarity of successful school turnarounds: The difficulty of school turnaround is underscored by the news that D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Kaya Henderson has revoked the contract of Friends of Bedford, a New York-based nonprofit organization hired to manage and turn around D.C.'s Dunbar High School.

The troubling statistics for Dunbar--which had 22 “serious” security incidents alone, more than any other DCPS high school, and where a recent survey found 45 percent of seniors not on track to graduate--are particularly tragic given the school’s illustrious history. Dunbar, founded in 1870, was the first true comprehensive high school for African American students in the United States and for a very long time was also the best--so much so that African American families from around the country sent their children to live with D.C.-located friends and relatives in order to attend the school, whose noteworthy alumni including surgeon Charles Drew, Senator Edward Brooke, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Mayor-elect Vincent Gray.

Many observers familiar with the poor performance of the D.C. Public School system in recent decades just assume the city’s schools were always lousy. But in fact, the District of Columbia was once one of--if not the--best place in the country for African American students to get an education. The reasons we’ve gone from being first to being among the worst in terms of educational outcomes for African American students are extremely complicated, and touch on a host of raw wounds in our nation’s and city’s history. But Dunbar is both a heartbreaking reminder of how we’ve failed our kids over the past 50 years in this city and a challenge to do better.

The Post’s Bill Turque reported today on plans for a new $100 million Dunbar to replace the school’s lousy current physical plant. But restoring Dunbar to its former glory will require a lot more than that, and unfortunately improvements on that scale are rare in public education.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.