New Dunbar Senior High School opens next week

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.

Martin Moulton is an education advocate who lives in the Shaw neighborhood. He is originally from California where he attended public, private and parochial schools. He works in the tech sector. A life long cyclist/non-driver, he serves on the board of the Washington Area Bicyclist Association. Moulton has served as a consultant to KIPP DC in its community outreach. 


Add a comment »

Wow, only three schools feed into Dunbar? That seems...very minimal. I realize that the entire feeder system is about to change with new school boundaries being drawn, etc., but that's an interesting fact.

I've figured for a long time that a CaBi station must be coming to the school. It's at the center of such a big gap in the system, if you look at the map. Makes total sense to have one there.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Aug 16, 2013 12:46 pm • linkreport

Great piece, Martin! On the feeder schools, do all three of them go up to grade 8?

I agree on the good news of a Capital Bikeshare station there, too. I would love to see CaBi stations located next to all DCPS high schools, and (real pipe dream here) a partnership between DDOT and DCPS to create a way for students 16 and older to get a bikeshare membership. The health benefits, and the savings compared to the current metro pass system are good reasons. Additionally, students could wind up helping bikeshare's redistribution issues, as the high schools are not primarily in downtown/commercial areas (and also, students are not on a standard rush-hour schedule).

by Jacques on Aug 16, 2013 1:55 pm • linkreport

Also, the visuals are great, and it looks like (at least once they get past the metal detectors) this year's students will have a much nicer environment for learning.

by Jacques on Aug 16, 2013 2:00 pm • linkreport

Although, Langley Elementary is listed as a feeder school for Dunbar on a couple of current DCPS source documents, DCPS officials updated us noting that the following will be the complete list of feeder schools for Dunbar since the Langley school, as of this year, serves only pre-K to 5th grade students:
Burroughs EC,
Langdon EC,
McKinley EC,
Noyes EC,
Walker-Jones EC,
Wheatley EC

This makes more sense with more than 1100 seats to fill in the new school.

Giving high school students CaBi memberships is a superb idea. But they'll need much larger stations.

The culture staff create at the school will be key to ensuring that behavior does not distract from a healthy learning environment. I hope they eventually dispense with the prison style equipment and the expense of entry guards and set up free fruit stands at the front door to help students start their day on the right foot. The presumption with metal detectors comes from the same mentality behind "stop and frisk" policies in other cities: that some young people are more violent or likely to carry weapons. Its an indictment of all DCPS high school students city wide, but not practiced at all DC high schools. We certainly didn't have them in my high school in Berkeley, Calif, and many of my classmates came from gang filled communities in Oakland.

It's a pity no one saw fit to plant a small orchard on the campus to promote healthy eating.

by Martin on Aug 16, 2013 6:07 pm • linkreport

As a DCPS alumnus and higher education professional, I think its great that many of the schools are going under extensive renovations or getting new buildings. My concerns, like many, are will students enroll and attend? I think the last time I checked, Dunbar was way under enrolled. And more importantly will students receive a decent education? We shall see.

by Matt on Aug 19, 2013 12:26 pm • linkreport

A new building should make attending school less dreary, but the academic program needs to prepare them for college. There's more to a school than a facelift. Dunbar had the 5th highest truancy rate in the District last year:

Truancy is key identifier of those who dropout and/or enter the "school to prison pipeline."

A Dunbar student who attended a Council earlier this year testified that no one at the school kept her and her peers abreast of college application deadlines — even those for UDC. She ended up applying a year after she should have.

by Martin on Aug 19, 2013 2:14 pm • linkreport


At Monday's celebration, Mayor Gray (in video above) announced that the swimming pool at Dunbar will be open on weekends only to general public this fall.

This is unlike nearly every other District government managed aquatic center in the District, including the one based at Wilson High School in Ward 3, where DPR provides public access Monday through Friday and on weekends:{%277%27.EX.%27Aquatic%20Center%27}

There was an update on featured guests this week:

Entertainer/philanthropist Bill Cosby will be at the new Dunbar on Wednesday

Alison Stewart will sign copies of her book, "First Class," about Dunbar's history on Friday
( recent video background on book: )

by Martin on Aug 20, 2013 9:26 am • linkreport

Add a Comment

Name: (will be displayed on the comments page)

Email: (must be your real address, but will be kept private)

URL: (optional, will be displayed)

You can use some HTML, like <blockquote>quoting another comment</blockquote>, <i>italics</i>, and <a href="http://url_here">hyperlinks</a>. More here.

Your comment:

By submitting a comment, you agree to abide by our comment policy.
Notify me of followup comments via email. (You can also subscribe without commenting.)
Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future.