Do we need another selective DCPS high school? A group at Dunbar thinks so

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?

Photo by Martin Moulton.

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 blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Banneker sits one block from Howard University. It is not in Columbia Heights.

by DC Geography Much? on Feb 12, 2014 11:19 am • linkreport

Here is a crazy idea, we need to focus kids early elementary and middle school experiences in real knowledge based experiences so that when they come to high school they can take rigorous courses. I have not read First Class but have read several reviews and each of them point to the fact that Dunbar had very high academic standards. Those standards could be demanded because students were prepared. The debate about high school quality is a moot point if a kid is reading at a 4th grade level which is just too common. I have said before, will say again we have to figure out how to teach more, earlier if we really want to reverse this trajectory.

by DC Parent on Feb 13, 2014 9:19 am • linkreport

Ms. Wechsler,

Regarding your comparison of Dunbar HS to Thurgood Marshall Public Charter School, I have a few questions for you about the 2013 graduating classes of these two schools:

In your description of Dunbar HS as a “low performing school,” you wrote that “Thurgood Marshall [Public Charter School] Academy (TMA) is a model to look to, as the District’s highest performing non-selective high school." You listed the TMA website as your source. Here are several questions:
1)Why did you only list the TMA website as a source?
2)What is your definition of “non-selective”?
3) The students who graduated in 2013 were members of the cohort of students that started in the fall of 2009, four years earlier. In which of the two schools (Dunbar or TMA) was the number of 2013 graduates a higher percentage of its starting 9th graders?
4)Which school games its DC CAS proficiency rates by removing male students before they can be tested?
5)Which school has the higher PSAT and SAT scores?
6)How many AP tests did each school administer and what were the results of each test?
7)What are the names of the graduates of each school and, for those accepted in college or other post-secondary programs:
a)What are their names of the colleges/institutions?
b)How many actually enrolled and are attending
c)How many are in credit-bearing, i.e. not remedial, non-credit, classes?
8) What are their teachers’ retention rates?

Erich Martel
Retired DCPS High School Teacher

by Erich Martel on Feb 13, 2014 12:42 pm • linkreport

It's not clear whether this is an argument based on supply and demand, or a referendum on DCPS management.

To address the point about Banneker playing Dunbar's role: as evidenced by Banneker's demographics, the students are far from economically elite. A population where sixty percent are low-income suggests economic disadvantage.

A point I think worth considering about the "old" Dunbar is the community commitment to the genuine promise public education makes: to take whomever and prepare them for life beyond high school.

by DC Educator on Feb 13, 2014 2:02 pm • linkreport

DC Parent: Yes, absolutely we need to focus on elementary and middle school education so that kids are actually prepared for high school. But I'm also concerned about what we can do for kids who are already in high school, or who will be reaching high school before we can "fix" the lower grades.

Mr. Martel: Obviously, I can't answer all of those questions, most of which I take to be rhetorical and essentially your way of arguing that TMA isn't all it's cracked up to be (although why you would need the "names of the graduates at each school" to argue that isn't clear to me). But you're right that I shouldn't have just relied on the school website for the assertion that it's the highest performing non-selective (i.e., does not have the legal right to exclude any students in admissions) high school in DC.

I've actually just spent quite a while on the Learn DC website comparing high school proficiency rates and other markers. And in fact, according to that site, TMA is not the highest-performing non-selective high school in DC, at least on the basis of proficiency scores. KIPP DC College Prep is (TMA's score is 74.8% and KIPP's is 77.5%).

But I would still hold up TMA as a model, or at least an aspirational model, for Dunbar, because KIPP is part of a high-performing network that begins in the early grades, whereas TMA (like Dunbar) takes in a lot of kids that are far below grade level at 9th grade.

Also, if you look at median growth percentiles as a measure, TMA is far ahead of KIPP, or any other high school, as far as I can tell. TMA's MGP is 83 for math and 78 for reading, while KIPP's is 53 and 45.

I also came across this: TMA offered 6 AP classes last year, and 50% of all graduating seniors had taken at least one. It's true they only had a 13% passing rate, but that's about the passing rate for DC as a whole.

I'm hoping to write a post on TMA that looks at the school in greater detail in the near future, so perhaps I'll be able to answer some of your questions then. But if you'd like to write one yourself that tackles some of them, instead of just asking them, please let me know!

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 13, 2014 2:19 pm • linkreport

What you write suggests a non-STEM-focused high school program. If Banneker and McKinley don't fill up but SWW only accepts 1/4 or 1/5, more seats could be needed of that type. I don't believe we need to match the total number of applicants though. So maybe a 300 student academy's worth, Walls East or Walls North or something.

by Andy on Feb 13, 2014 3:22 pm • linkreport

Andy: Just FYI, Banneker tried to increase the size of its entering class by 50 this year but could only find about 40 more kids who met its criteria (found this out after the post went live). So I don't know if there are actually another 300 high-achieving kids out there who would apply, unless some of the west-of-the-park Walls applicants are interested in going to Dunbar. Perhaps someone west of the park with school-age kids would care to comment on that?

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 13, 2014 3:53 pm • linkreport

Natalie- your 3:53 comment really hits the problem on the nail. I understand the question is what do we do now, but the way I see it, we have two choices, we either focus energy in elementary and middle and frankly give up on the current cohort of students or if we are going to focus on this cohort find several hundred that are willing to put in a lot of extra time to see if they can make up for past deficiencies. The question is, is DCPS willing to put the time and money into these kids to get a maybe ok outcome. Also are these kids willing to make the investment in themselves?

by DC Parent on Feb 13, 2014 5:28 pm • linkreport

The author deploys the same morally atrocious "logic" as that behind the absurd idea that halving *everyone's* income is just---since it reduces inequality! Except that denying a safe, stable, competent high school experience to average kids who actually--as you put it--"show up for school, do the work, [and] don't cause trouble" is to give them *less* than half an education; it is to place them in harm's way and ramp up their lifetime risk of (un/under)employment, underachievement and possibly much worse---all to satisfy your perverse outsider's notion of 'equity.' Selective admission is the *only* serious chance to furnish a meaningful, quality education inside DCPS to decent, able students from decent families and simultaneously protect them from the worst of DC's infamous, entrenched underclass. God knows DCPS school discipline policies and practices won't do it.

Your ideological commitment to forcing those students who *could* otherwise escape poverty (through their own efforts in functional schools!) to marinate in urban depravity and dysfunction is criminal.

Good Lord, you (and most of your readers) would *never* send your own kids to Dunbar as it is or ever could be under your suggested policy strictures. So why would you try to force otherwise able, functional families to suffer through that sort of nightmare?

Absent a discipline policy and practice that removes the dangerous and persistently-disruptive children from the typical classroom, selective admission is the only reliable way to optimize public education in DC. But so many on the left seem to prefer almost-total failure to the prospect of---gasp!---disparate outcomes. It's the sort of thinking that ought to shock the conscience.

Let's hope DCPS and Dunbar ignore your argument.

by WhatPrice,Equity? on Feb 14, 2014 12:35 am • linkreport

This application school concept is not for getting the best students in but keeping the so-so students out. A city of this size and school population of this size can't afford another application only high-school. If Dunbar succeeds then that would mean the students who are not let-in will trickle to Eastern. That would mean the kids who live on that 10-block parcel of Capitol Hill would be terrified to attend Eastern as it would be over-runned by rift-raft. Perish the thought that unwanted from Dunbar would have to rub shoulders with privilege of the Capitol Hill elite. If this is done, the U-haul truck will be lining up in droves. Now, I am poised to believe what Dunbar wants that Dunbar usually gets; political clout is their trump card. I would say absorb the Banneker concept into Dunbar...merely because the property of Banneker is prime real estate for Howard University. Thus by phasing out Banneker with phasing in the new Dunbar is a win/win situation. The new Dunbar facility is a quaint buidling and would be perfect for an incoming freshmen class of application only students. Also with Eastern being on-line with 9th thru 12th graders and could easily accomodate those students who are no longer worthy to be Dunbar students. Now if you want to hold-off until the Spingarn is re-opened then that too could be an option but why wait when this could be done for school year 2015 at the earliest. As the saying goes; out with the old and in with the new.

by Just my thoughts on Feb 14, 2014 6:25 am • linkreport

Hi Natalie - I was trying to distinguish between demand for Banneker and Walls, which seems to be STEM and hard vs generalist and hard. It seems extra clear especially with your latter addition that generalist and rigorous has demand that STEM plus rigor does not.

Isn't that demand imbalance reflected in their comparative admissions/entrance results?

by Andy on Feb 14, 2014 1:27 pm • linkreport

Andy -- Actually, I don't think Banneker does have a STEM focus, just a general academic one -- at least, I can't find anything about a STEM focus in what I've read about Banneker. McKinley Tech does have a STEM focus and gets about the same number of applications Banneker does (700), while admitting a few more (200 rather than the 150 Banneker admitted last year).

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 14, 2014 2:36 pm • linkreport

My friends kids that attended Banneker did not indicate any type of STEM focus. My understanding was that it had an IB program.

by DC Parent on Feb 14, 2014 3:51 pm • linkreport

The two designated high-schools with STEM focus are Mckinley and Woodson High Schools.

by Just my thoughts on Feb 14, 2014 8:26 pm • linkreport

Natalie you are so right, and I can't believe I've gone so long believing Banneker was math/science focused.

It's possible SWW has a particular cachet, but it's pretty certain that won't transfer to Dunbar.

Thanks for the enlightenment!

by Andy on Feb 15, 2014 10:59 pm • linkreport

Dunbar HS vs. Thurgood Marshall Academy (TMA) Public Charter School
The questions I posted, albeit rhetorical, were valid and should encourage you to be skeptical of facts that the school’s management posts.
1) That's why I asked why you only listed the TMA website as a source.
2) Question: What is your definition of “non-selective”?
Dunbar HS is non-selective. Any school-age student who lives in its attendance zone has the right to attend the school. Students enter TMA and charters by applying via a lottery.

Did TMA show you the list of applicants? Has the there been an audit of the lottery process? …of the first round of acceptance letters? …of the waiting list? … and did the replacement students come off the wait list in wait-list order? In its study of KIPP schools, Mathematica reported that KIPP’s replacement students had higher pre-KIPP test scores than the students admitted in KIPP’s entry-grades, an indication of selective enrollment. Has anyone checked? Did you ask? Will you ask?

3)The students who graduated in 2013 were members of the cohort of students that started in the fall of 2009, four years earlier.
The Question: In which of the two schools (Dunbar or TMA) was the number of 2013 graduates a higher percentage of its starting 9th graders?
Answer: Dunbar HS: 35.2% (120 graduates divided by 341 starting 9th graders)
Thurgood Marshall: 34.2% (50 graduates divided by 146 starting 9th graders)

How did TMA graduate a smaller percentage of its original 9th grade cohort than Dunbar, yet claim a 78% graduation rate to Dunbar’s 60%?

TMA & most charters do exactly what you say they don’t do: Employ multiple selection strategies:
a. Self-selection of applicants – attracting the more engaged parents to a school that enforces strict behavior standards based on a bottom line of student removal;
b. Selection of only first time 9th graders (see below);
c. Selective retention through selective removal of more than 50% of the 9th grade students before graduation. Who are those students?
It appears that TMA cannot teach male students. When TMA’s class of 2013 took the DC CAS test in 10th grade (April 2011), only 26 (29.5%) of the 88 students tested were male. In the previous four years, male students tested never exceeded 33.3%.
d. Selective “replacement” of students.

In response to an open letter to elected officials requesting more information about TMA’s student enrollment policies, Council Chairman Mendelson obtained a response from OSSE that provided more detail about the enrollment history of TMA’s 2012 graduating class, which his office forwarded to me. It revealed two details not publicly posted:
- 16 “transferred in” students were added to the 138 starting 9th graders. Thus, at least 154 students had been members of the Class of 2012 cohort; its 63 graduates represented a completion rate of 40.9%.
- When cross-referenced with graduation criteria, it became clear that none of TMA’s 2012 cohort were second time 9th graders. If Dunbar HS’s and DCPS’s graduation rates were not weighted with 2nd and 3rd time 9th graders, their graduation rates would easily go up by 10 to 15 percentage points.

It appears that TMA’s and other charters’ privilege to make their own rules stems from political and foundation influence. Shortly after Gray’s 2010 primary victory, WP reporter Bill Turque reported on a meeting with “donors” arranged by TMA’s then-executive director Joshua Kern, “a key education advisor to Gray” ( It’s worth rereading. Several foundation members of the TMA board were present. Their main concern was keeping the IMPACT teacher evaluation instrument in place, which several of them had helped fund. TMA’s – and other charters’ - transfer practices, which any of them could could pull together then as now, did not merit concern.

by Erich Martel on Feb 17, 2014 12:47 am • linkreport

Mr.Martel: Thanks for answering some of those questions and engaging in this conversation. I do hope to write a post about TMA and to discuss at least some of these issues with them, although I can't promise to come up with answers that will satisfy you. You might try putting your questions directly to TMA, if you haven't done that already.

By the way, you say that "students enter TMA and charters by applying via a lottery." Charter schools only use a lottery to admit students if they have more applicants than spaces. If they're not in that situation, it's first-come-first-served. And this year, of course, there is a universal (or near-universal) lottery, which TMA is participating in. If you think charters are manipulating their lotteries (and I'm not saying I'm convinced they do that), I wonder how you think they'll be able to do it when the lottery winners are determined by an algorithm the schools have no control over.

by Natalie Wexler on Feb 17, 2014 3:12 pm • linkreport

Have charters manipulated their lotteries?
I have no evidence, just inference - and a healthy knowledge of how institutions will manipulate their performance indicators, especially in a highly charged, competitive environment, such as public education today. In 2002 and 2006, I reported students certified for the high school diploma at Wilson HS who were missing graduation requirements. Both were followed by audits that confirmed the reports. The first led to sample audits of all DCPS high schools and found mismanagement of student records, grade changes without proper documentation, etc. Teachers reported being pressured to change grades, etc.
Recently, math teacher Caleb Rossiter resigned from Friendship Tech Prep ( DCPS high schools and probably most if not all DC charters employ pseudo after school courses like "credit recovery" to boost their course pass and graduation rates.
They will happily brag about the number of students enrolled in AP classes, but refuse to post their test results or PSAT and SAT school averages. How many schools will even post their lists of diploma recipients. A diploma is a publicly awarded document, not confidential. The reason is to minimize internal, teacher oversight.
Why, then, would these same institutions refrain from manipulating a lottery process that no one is checking?
I saw how fearful teachers were of reporting grade changes outside of the described process in the union contract. Charter teachers don't even have that.
With a unified, algorithm driven lottery, outright manipulation will be harder or not possible. The manipulation will be in the built-in exceptions and adherence to wait-list requirements.

by Erich Martel on Feb 21, 2014 8:33 pm • linkreport

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