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Posted at 1:00 AM ET, 12/14/2010

New Dunbar design unveiled

By Bill Turque

After a week's worth of news about disorder and disarray at Dunbar Senior High School, District officials were pleased to change the subject for at least a few minutes Tuesday morning. In one of his last school-related press events, Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) unveiled the proposed design for a new $100 million Dunbar. The new school, scheduled to open in time for the 2013-14 academic year, will replace a dingy, virtually windowless, 1970s-vintage hexagon-and-high-rise on New Jersey Avenue NW that Council member Harry Thomas, Jr. (D-Ward 5) calls "a prison with open space."

The new Dunbar looks a bit like private Sidwell Friends with its campus-like setting, atriums and plenty of natural light. The winning designers -- the team of Ehrenkrantz, Eckstut & Kuhn Architects-Engineers and Moody-Nolan Architects--said they have tried to pay homage to the original school named for the poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, which was built in 1917 as the first municipally funded public high school for black students. Alumni include Duke Ellington, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) and Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray (D). Plans include a vast central lobby, with an image of Dunbar, and selections from his verse.

The school was the site of a messy transition last week, as Interim Chancellor Kaya Henderson ousted Friends of Bedford, the private, New York-based operator of the school, hired by three years ago by then-Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee to overhaul its culture and academics. Henderson said the school had been plagued by security problems and other management issues. Bedford CEO George Leonard said the removal was politically motivated and engineered by disgruntled staff and parents who, with Rhee out of the picture, were able to persuade Gray and Thomas that a change was needed. Henderson said she acted on her own in making the change at Dunbar.

The building itself is widely considered to be a factor in the school's problems. It was built in 1977 without walls to separate the classrooms, part of an "open" design in vogue at the time but ultimately the bane of generations of students and teachers who lost portions of their sanity trying to keep focused on their work. Walls went up last year, but the building is dark, dank and described by students as soul-deadening. Designed to accommodate 1,100 students, its enrollment now is about 800. Large portions of the 343,000 square-foot building are empty and difficult to secure.

Said Gray (Class of 1959): "Frankly I can't wait until our young people are out of this building."

The new Dunbar will go up beside the old one, meaning that students won't have to be moved into "swing space" at another building. But it does mean that that the school's $3 million athletic field, installed in 2007, will be torn up. Tony Robinson, spokesman or school construction czar--and soon to be city administrator Allen Lew--said it is cheaper to put in yet another new field than to retrofit another building to house Dunbar students for the construction period. Relocating Woodrow Wilson students to the University of the District of Columbia during that high school's makeover cost an estimated $8 million, Robinson said.

By Bill Turque  | December 14, 2010; 1:00 AM ET
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This situation seems so bleak. I wonder if any of the schools closed in the past few years could be used until the new building is complete. Perhaps this would not cost as much as trying to retrofit office space.

Posted by: Concerned_Citizen2 | December 14, 2010 2:04 PM | Report abuse

Okay, now were are blaming "the building." When are we going to be honest? The children have the problems not the building. The building is 343,000 square feet with only 800 students. What happened to the argument that school overcrowding leads to the dysfunction that is happening at Dunbar? Apparently Dunbar is under enrolled and Dunbar is a disaster.

Posted by: Concerned3 | December 14, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

2013 seems so far away. The idea is to keep them in a building until the new building is complete. Is there any tried and true methods in handling new school construction and current school needs. How dare the Washington Post explains what it costs to house/move Wilson and no one wants to share the long-term effects it costs the city to house Woodson which included moving, retro-fitting, occupying two campuses for years. Does one want to explain the covered-up issues in regards to the NEWLY remodeled Eastern, which is occupied but has enough problems as an OLD BUILDING e.g., heating and roof leaks. Yet, through this mirage a promotion is pending for someone. As I look at the design there's certain a lot of glass, which should be replaced with mirrors as that is more reflective of the smoke and mirrors analagies that are being portrayed to us the public.

Posted by: PowerandPride | December 14, 2010 3:55 PM | Report abuse

PowerandPride - you know who can answer those questions? Mr. Allen Lew, the future Chief Administrative Officer of DC. not to say the man is not competent, just there are many questions to ask when it relates to the DCPS modernization program. part of the problem is poor construction, part is as simple as cleaning roof drains and basic maintenance/upkeep.

I have not seen the budget in a while but the swing space cost for Wilson should capture the millions they spent to fix up UDC and the cost to transport the kids and more. Word is DCPS is never leaving UDC after the money they put in there for Wilson. knowing the politics of DC, don't be surprised to see a Charter rent UDC at below market rates factoring the investment by DCPS.

Posted by: oknow1 | December 14, 2010 5:47 PM | Report abuse

100 million dollars. Crazy.

Posted by: shred11 | December 14, 2010 9:10 PM | Report abuse

Three months and the new building is trashed.

Posted by: waterfrontproperty | December 14, 2010 10:37 PM | Report abuse

My mother was a Dunbar alumna. From 1948 to 1952, she attended a school that was constructed in 1917, and produced graduates whose achievements rivaled those of the top echelon of high school graduates in the U.S. She went on to attend Georgetown, while her classmates were well represented in the Ivy League.

That building was retired in the mid-1970's, and the present day building was constructed in 1977. A school district that is choked by financial demands would have us believe it is obsolete after 33 years. Apparently, its replacement needs to come in at $100 million.

I don't believe this word is part of the contemporary urban African American lexicon, but...


Posted by: carlaclaws | December 14, 2010 10:51 PM | Report abuse

The oldest building at Oxford University was constructed in 1320. Several buildings on the campus are at least 400-500 years old. Despite this slacker attitude toward planned obsolescence, Oxford has managed to eke out a reputation for academics that gives 2010 Dunbar High School a decent level of competition.

Posted by: carlaclaws | December 14, 2010 11:03 PM | Report abuse

I find it hard to believe a new building will fix the problems at Dunbar.

Posted by: gitouttahere | December 15, 2010 12:01 AM | Report abuse

Okay did the new building in 1977 fix the problems? Will the new building in 2013 help the situation? Problems are inevitable but problem-solving is paramount.

You're right Oknow1, the poor construction is front and center. But the dialogue is that Eastern is occupant ready but not building ready. So here at the new Eastern we are experiencing the rodent problem, the door locks failing, roof leakage, heating failure, floor tile loosening, poor paint job, inoperable toilets and other issues. But, we are told that we must be grateful for such a beautiful building for occupancy.

When one looks at a remodeled Eastern at 77-million dollars and 100-million for Dunbar and Woodson new constructions, it is clearly a difference. It almost becomes like the V-8 commercial of old...where one smacks themselves in the head...and we would now say "we should've had a newly constructed building."

I say when one looks at Dunbar and see that they have almost two-buildings underconstruction for 100-million and Woodson has just one building. All I can say, someone is getting more bang for the bucks. But kudos goes to the communities of Woodson and Dunbar as their former schools were just about 30-plus years old. So, to have been able to garner upcoming new buildings before Coolidge, Roosevelt, Spingarn and even Ballou is a fete of accomplishment.

Posted by: PowerandPride | December 15, 2010 8:15 AM | Report abuse

What's the point, you could spend $200 million on the building, but if its the same old same old failing teachers backed by a union which cares nothing for education and only about protecting teachers pocket books (and so their dues) you will still have the same failure found elsewhere.

Posted by: ForTheLulz | December 15, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

I don't think that a new building will solve all the problems that Dunbar (or many DC schools) has. But it will help.

It's hard to convince kids that we care about them when the heat doesn't work, the roof is leaking, paint is peeling off the walls, and rodents are crawling around. It makes it hard on teachers too -- no one expects office workers to function in an environment without heat!

I agree with the many posters who point out that incompetence -- from some teachers, some parents, some administrators, some central office workers -- is to blame for the majority of our problems. But if you expect people to act like professionals, you have to treat them like professionals. And that means housing schools in buildings that aren't falling apart.

Posted by: quadrserum | December 16, 2010 9:55 AM | Report abuse

Now comes out in the press what was already in plans of Alan Lew's DC schools- construction shop: By the end of next year close to $half-billion will have been spent opening new and rehabbing old DCPS high schools east of the park. (Dunbar, Phelps, Eastern, Cardozo). None of these schools enroll or are projected to enroll more than 60% of Wilson HS's 1500 students. But, that didn't stop howls of protest over the Wilson HS renovation (which avoids costly ADA compliance by depending on time-killing and costly-to-repair elevators.) And these budgets didn't encourage the WaPo reporter to dismiss with their revelation claims that west-of-the-Park schools were favored by the Fenty administration.

Meanwhile, it is evident that DCPS has no idea how to ensure that most of its high schools are worth attending. Also, that too many are embarrassed to note that Wilson HS is operating in UDC digs this year which are so alike in architecture and age (cast concrete monoliths from the 1970's) the Dunbar facility blamed for Dunbar's failings.

Posted by: incredulous | December 16, 2010 12:02 PM | Report abuse

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