Learning Why the Caged Bird Sings

First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School
by Alison Stewart
Chicago Review Press, 2013, $26.95, 352 pages

The story of DC’s Dunbar High School, told brilliantly by Alison Stewart in First Class, is equal parts uplifting and maddening.

The school’s story from its opening in 1870 to the 1960s is a testament to the indomitable spirit of the African-American community of the District at that time.  Though relegated to second-class status and stifled at every turn, Dunbar produced a coterie of graduates that the most elite schools in the country would envy.  Doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business all graced and were graced by Dunbar’s faculty and community.

But paradoxically, as the nation moved to integrate and increase the quality of opportunities available to African-American students, Dunbar saw a precipitous decline.

In a refreshing narrative style, Stewart does not try, as many others do, to boil down Dunbar’s post-1960s faltering to a narrow set of causes.  She takes care to document the myriad challenges the school faced.  From the broader set of opportunities for African-Americans in the workplace that allowed the lawyers, doctors, and scholars who had taught at Dunbar to pursue careers in their chosen fields to the riots of 1968 to the drug epidemic that savaged the city, Dunbar had to cope with an incredible amount of change driven by factors far outside of its control.

But reading the detailed history presented in the book, I found it hard to argue that Dunbar’s job got demonstrably harder. There is no question that Washington DC in the 1970s and 1980s was a rough place.  However, for African-American people, I have to think that the eras of Reconstruction, Jim Crow, and the Depression were much worse, yet Dunbar thrived in the latter and excelled in the former.

Simple statistics bear this out.  On the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream Speech” the census department released statistics comparing the state of African Americans in the time of Martin Luther King and today.   From 1966 to 2011, the poverty rate of African-Americans was cut almost in half, from 41.8 to 27.6.   Median income increased from $22,266 (in 2011 dollars) to $40,495, a change from 55% of US median income to 66% of US median income.  In 1964, 3.9% of African Americans 25 and over had completed at least 4 years of college, by 2012, that had jumped to 21.2%.  Going further back in time would almost surely show a worse condition for African-Americans.

I’m left with the conclusion that Dunbar no longer produced such storied graduates because its fundamental mission changed. Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it. The system “leveled the playing field,” not by bringing up the other schools in the district to Dunbar’s level, but by bringing Dunbar down to their level.  It is absolutely true that transitioning Dunbar from an elite school for the best and brightest of DC’s African-American community to a residentially zoned public school has expanded access to the school, but there was a cost.

In telling that story, this book raises fascinating questions about the relationship between equity and excellence.  The story of Dunbar reminds us that often, in the fervor to raise up the lowest-performing students in urban schools, reformers neglect the high-performing students.  Smart kids are kids too, and a real systemic reform would be respectful of their hopes and dreams.

In wrestling with those issues, the book led me to a bit of a thought experiment: how would the education community react to a school like Dunbar circa 1920 today?

Dunbar at that time:

1. Was selective of the students that it allowed in – Dunbar required passage of an 8th grade exit exam or a high school placement test for students from outside the district
2. Had an unbelievably strict discipline system – The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols(“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.
3. Set an “astronomically” high academic standard for its students – For example, the Board of Education had to intervene to lower the amount of homework to one hour per subject per night.
4. Flunked out a large number of students – Stewart quotes a report  from the 1920s that stated “thirty-seven left the first semester, the majority of these being self-supporting pupils who lacked the courage and finance to continue the work” (pg. 90)
5. Tracked its students into different academic levels– Taking it a step farther, it even tracked students into the more vocationally oriented Cardozo High if they couldn’t cut it at Dunbar.

Would assistant principal and dean of girls Julia Evangeline Brooks be described as a “cultural eugenicist” for mandating particular behavior for students, as KIPP leaders—who appear to ask for similar behavior—have been in the past?  Would expecting African-American students from the District of Columbia to master “English, mathematics, the sciences, ancient history, Negro history, military drill, physical education, music, drawing, domestic science, Latin, Spanish, French, and German” be considered “A very inappropriate standard that’s way too high?”

If we were to answer that question honestly, I tend to think that the answer to at least some of those questions would be “yes.” In doing so, we do a great disservice to the incredible potential of our children.

Thought-provoking, rich in detail, and told with a fondness and style that makes it hard to put down, I highly recommend reading First Class and coming to your own conclusions.

-Michael McShane

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