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Dunbar Senior High School in Washington DC was established in 1870 and was the first public high school for African-Americans in the District of Columbia and the United States of America. Dunbar was initially called the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth and was founded by William Syphax, the first chairman of the Board of Trustees of the Colored Public Schools in the District of Columbia.

According to a 1978 New Yorker magazine article by Jervis Anderson, there had been roughly four periods in the history of Dunbar High School. The first began in 1870, when the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth opened its doors in the basement of the Fifteenth Street Presbyterian Church, between I and K Street NW. Dunbar operated out of the Thaddeus Stevens School from 1871 – 1872; the Charles Sumner School from 1872 – 1877, the Myrtilla Miner school at 7th & Church Street, NW and remained there until 1891 when it became the M Street High school.

The second period of its history began on M Street and lasted until 1916 when it dropped its founding name and became the M Street High School where high standards of achievement were established.

The third period in its history commenced in 1916 when the school moved to a newer and larger building at 1st & N Street, NW and was renamed the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in honor of the first nationally recognized black poet. One of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poems was adopted as the school’s inspiration: “Keep-A-Plugging Away.”

The fourth period began in the ‘70s with the razing of the 1916 building and replacement with a modern structure. For many years, Dunbar has been recognized around the country as the producer of the city and country’s “best and brightest” students, scholars, and achievers. A few notable graduates and achievers include: Senator Edward Brooke, General Benjamin O. Davis, Judge William Hastie, Brigadier General Elmer Brooks, DC Congressman Walter E. Fauntroy, Superintendent Floretta Dukes McKenzie, DC Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and the Honorable Mayor of the District of Columbia, Vincent C. Gray, Colbert I. King, Francis O. Taylor, Reverend Dr. Leonard N. Smith, Bishop Lyles Duke & Reverend Deborah Duke and Coach Craig Jeffries.

According to various historical records, there has been an alliance of alumni classes for the 1800’s &, 1900’s. The Paul Laurence Dunbar High School Convocation & Alumni Federation (DAF) is the effort for the 2000 decade. DAF is a non-profit 501c3 charitable and educational corporation organized in 2002. The corporation works in partnership with the leadership and faculty of the school to create better futures for Dunbar students and graduates. DAF is an alliance of alumni members, classes, friends and supporters providing college scholarships, student financial aid, financial and moral support for student and faculty development activities. Over the brief period of eleven years, DAF has achieved great progress in mobilizing alumni across eight decades, coordinating efforts of Classes to provide supports to Dunbar students, faculty and school, disbursing over $120,000 in college scholarships and development activities. Moreover, DAF encouraged the formation of the Dunbar Room at Sumner School, established an Endowment Fund, and advocated for a new focus on academic excellence. DAF also made a compelling case for the accelerated financing and construction of the New Dunbar building, and in collaboration with Principal Jackson recently installed the Dr. Laurence E. Graves Museum of Dunbar history within the new school building.

The fifth period of Dunbar’s history (A NEW ERA DAWNING) is being ushered in 2013 with a new state of the art, 21st century campus. Principal Stephen Jackson and his team have developed a Turnaround Vision for Dunbar Senior High School which has been supported by DC Public School Chancellor Henderson and implementation has commenced. Centrally, it calls for creating smaller learning communities wherein Dunbar can once again be the leading academic environment producing outstanding educators, engineers, scientists, doctors, and other leaders in the community. The new vision calls for “building a bridge from the past to the future while creating future opportunities for our children.”

The five key strategies being employed by the school leadership team are: (1) the creation of smaller learning communities, (2) Professional Development (art & science of teaching), (3) Academic interventions, (4) School Climate and Culture and (5) Parent Engagement. The smaller learning communities or pathways are called Academies. They include: The Dr. Anna J. Cooper Educational Career Academy in Administration and Counseling; the Dr. Charles Drew STEM Academy in Bio-Medicine and Engineering; the Eleanor Holmes Norton Leadership Academy in Business and Public Policy and the Vincent C. Gray Ninth Grade Leadership Academy for a smooth transition into high school. The fifth is the Twilight Academy for over-age and under credited students. The 9th grade Academy and the Twilight Academy commenced at the start of the 2011 school year. The STEM and Educational Careers Academy was rolled out in school year 2012-2013. A sequence of courses, internships, opportunities upon graduation including related college majors, related occupations including the military have been identified for each pathway. Formal partnerships are or will be developed for each Academy.

From a technical perspective, the new Dunbar edifice is often described by city facilities’ officials and the Architects and Engineers of EEK, now Perkins Eastman & Moody-Nolan as: A Compact Site Design which weaves the sports fields of the school and recreation center together through the Armory, fosters more frequent interaction between students and staff, allows for ease of circulation and service, facilitates security through a single door, easier to maintain; A Civic Presence/Iconic Massing inspired by elements of historic Dunbar: tower elements, bay windows, articulated corners, strong horizontal lines, responds to every side: N Street/New York Avenue, 1st Street, O Street, New Jersey Avenue, centered by the Armory with a clear relationship to the fields, creates an iconic “lantern” through the Media Center facing New York Avenue; and a Distinct Place-Making creates a multi-function “heart of the school” in the Armory, accommodates after-hours use by organizing the Gym, Pool, Media Center & Theatre around the Armory, connects academic neighborhoods through two double-height spaces, engages the park through a south facing entry plaza, and creates a park-like setting on both sides of N Street featuring sports fields, basketball courts and concessions.

Many alumni describe the new building as a prominent, first class, 21st Century teaching and learning facility that honors the past, present and future. We also believe that these two forces will serve as the bridge to unite all of Dunbar’s alumni regardless of decade and foster a new sense of great pride in our Alma Mater.

Carrie L. Thornhill

Dunbar Alumni Federation Treasurer and School Improvement Team Member

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