First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School (Stewart)

Perhaps because I am a teacher, I focused on the word ‘school’ in the subtitle. For the first 180 pages or so, Stewart focuses on the word ‘legacy.’ And she’s right to do so. She lays out the legacy of a remarkable public school in an era that could be thought of as the one before the fall. Segregated by legal necessity, Dunbar flourished. It is interesting, at a distance, to learn some of the history of Washington D.C. along the way.

It might be the very definition of irony that it was the school desegregation movement that proved its undoing. Once a selective school, Dunbar becomes a neighborhood school and, both by all objective measures (student performance, facility maintenance, teacher quality) and the observations of those involved in the transition, it suffers. I wish Stewart had spent more time here as well as on the shift in the teaching corps.

There is a term for it, I’m sure, but one of the most interesting conflicts comes when those who knew Dunbar I are called on (or are called) to try to restore the school’s image. Madison Tignor, for example, works at the Library of Congress and is frustrated by a shelf labeled ‘colored authors.’ (This shelf remains in so many libraries and bookstores. I share his frustration.) His efforts are undone by a white teacher who sponsors a group called the Modern Strivers, a group that seems similar to many of the protest groups that found their way into institutions in the 1960s. The group has at least one objection that I see as quite reasonable (and, like the special shelves for African-American authors), it is an issue that persists to this day (and is just as objectionable) – tracking. “Black activists,” Stewart writes, “called the tracking de facto segregation.” And they were right. And the thing is, they are still right. Tracking has no place in education. Like standardized testing (initially and still a pseudo-scientific effort to prove the inferiority of people who weren’t/ aren’t white – see More than a Score edited by Hagopian), tracking is a legacy of racism. I’ll say it more simply; tracking is racist ( Tracking was and remains a faux-intellectual way of restoring segregation. That it still exists in so many schools, including one a short distance from where I am writing this, is disgraceful. Call it by whatever name you want, it’s racism. The ‘Basic’ classes in Dunbar’s time were for the ‘mentally retarded but educable.’ I’ve been at two schools that replace basic with College Prep. The students at both places quickly take the initials and make another descriptor for those classes – ‘Colored People.’

But what Stewart calls “decades of chronic underfunding” (–no-school-funding-fix.html) cannot be unraveled by the Modern Strivers. The school enters a phase that Stewart calls Dunbar II – a short-lived, architecturally disastrous effort to create a Dunbar for a new age. And just as the Modern Strivers are not the answer, nor is Michelle Rhee (who, I freely admit, had me fooled for a while). There are glimmers of hope – a public-private partnership with the likes of General Electric and IBM that could be the basis for future efforts. Stewart ends the book with some signs of hope – a new building, seeds of a marching band (whose existence recalls a disastrous story in the Prologue about the band’s performance at Obama’s inauguration).

Stewart is a better researcher than she is a writer. There are winks at her readers that are completely unnecessary and diminish the power of her work. But this is a useful history of a public school in the nation’s capital and the ways in which it has evolved. Dunbar’s story is a powerful reminder of how much has changed, how much needs to be changed, and the necessity of paying attention.



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