Equity & Diversity Opinion

John Thompson: First Class; Education at DC’s Dunbar High School

By Anthony Cody — September 05, 2013 5 min read
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Guest post by John Thompson.

Alison Stewart’s new book First Class tells the powerful story of how Washington D.C.'s Dunbar High School played an inspiring role in “a national movement for justice and citizenship.” Dunbar’s educators made the best of the demeaning and cruel Jim Crow system. Their achievements were “stunning.” Graduates of Dunbar led the legal fight against de jure segregation and pioneered world class innovations in medicine, scholarship, art and music. One eminent Dunbar graduate after another, often after earning doctorates from prestigious universities, returned to build an incredible learning institution.

First Class also tells the tragic story of the elite institution becoming collateral damage due to the ham-handed way that America’s schools were desegregated, but not properly integrated, in the second half of the 20th century. Stewart then recalls the rushed 21st century school improvements imposed by Michelle Rhee on Dunbar and D.C. that, I would say, were equally inept.

After several weeks of contemplating Stewart’s masterpiece, I am just now starting to wrestle with its lessons. Some conclusions are obvious. During Jim Crow, there was little alternative to the Dunbar strategy of making the best of the demeaning system of segregation and showing that blacks could meet the highest standards of white scholarship, art, and governance. Dunbar drew upon both the Booker T. Washington accommodationist approach of working within the racist system and W.E.B. DuBois’ commitment to excellence.

Dunbar’s stunning achievements cannot be explained without using a word that has gone out of fashion. It nurtured students’ self-esteem. At times, the school’s discipline crossed over into authoritarianism. My reading of Stewart’s narrative, however, is that Dunbar mostly adopted the pedagogy that Charles Payne characterizes as “authoritative supportive.” As Payne explains, the Black church has often shown the value of an authoritative, not authoritarian, culture of loving support.

The second lesson of First Class was illustrated by a brief account of the partnership between Charles Hamilton Houston and a barber, Gardner Bishop, who was known as the “U Street barber.” Gardner had led direct action, such as a “sit out” of his daughter’s elementary school in protest against its horrendous conditions. Gardner said he represented “regular” working people as opposed to “highfaulutin” Negroes who he saw as looking down on regular blacks. He even claimed that his constituents suffered from “double Jim Crow” aggravated by “upper class” Negroes.

Even so, Gardner reached out to Houston. Houston responded and invited Gardner into his home. Together, they rejected the “‘us and them’ meme” and de facto segregation was defeated. In other words, real social improvement requires cooperation of where all types of people sometimes have to agree to disagree, as they work cooperatively. The lesson is that we can’t improve troubled schools until we learn the skill of “living in dialogue.”

The third lesson can be found in a seemingly minor digression where Stewart describes the unsuccessful efforts of her grandfather to provide high-quality, economically integrated, public housing. Her grandfather, Mayhugh Graham, joined the National Capital Housing Campaign and helped run the first public housing units in D.C. His thesis was that decent housing could spearhead an effort to turn poor peoples’ lives around. “Everybody was going to be uplifted.”

Graham was ahead of his time in seeking a socio-economic balance in public housing. He walked the talk and lived in the project. At first, a balance was achieved and it looked like a community could be created where poor families who lacked good jobs and exposure to outside opportunities could “imitate and learn” from families that were more integrated into the wider society. When it got to the point where half of the families came from overcrowded homes and “areas of ‘disease and delinquency’” the project became a slum.

So, whether we are talking about housing, education, or any other social problem, no single, isolated policy will be enough. Real solutions must be holistic.

Regarding the lessons of the more contemporary history of Dunbar, my reading of Stewart is that she gave more evidence that Michelle Rhee’s “reforms” never had a chance. Rhee was in too much of a hurry. She didn’t listen to or properly respect the community that she was trying to save. Rhee made the ideological decision that the answer to failing schools had to be found within the four walls of the classroom. Her mindset of fire first, ask questions later was doomed from the beginning.

So, what are the alternatives? Simplistic quick fixes are clearly inadequate. We need a holistic approach that brings the entire community into the process. When that is not fully possible, we cannot just move ahead with an essential component missing. We must then invest in full-service community schools that bring poor students out into the wider community and diverse health, welfare, and educational institutions into the school buildings.

We will also need uncomfortable conversations - including discussions about academic tracking race, family, and disciplinary policy. Some will be angry; some will express the visceral opinion that bringing out-of-school factors into the discussion will be “blaming the victim.” And, the dividing lines of such a discussion will sometimes be along class, as well as racial and ideological lines.

Throughout this discussion of pedagogy, we must focus on students’ “self-esteem.” “Reformers” have gone much too far in stressing the remediation of students’ weaknesses. We need schools like the old Dunbar that build on children’s strengths. Self-respect is the rock that real school improvement, and real justice, must be based on.

What do you think? Doesn’t school reform have to be a team effort? How can we improve the future without learning from the past? Isn’t it time to give up on “silver bullets?”

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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