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Posted at 5:25 PM ET, 12/17/2010

How bad school buildings happen

By Mike DeBonis


In my not-a-column this week, I looked at the plight of Dunbar Senior High School -- not just its recent troubles, but the long-troubled building itself.

I'd long been fascinated by Dunbar (pictured) and other schools built in that era -- including H.D. Woodson Senior High School, Bruce Monroe Elementary School, Shaw Junior High School, and others -- that seemed almost completely unsuited for learning. Whether it was a high-rise layout or the exposed concrete or a lack of windows or open floor plans, I never could quite understand what people were thinking in that era, which lasted from the late 1960s through the 1970s.

In 2008, I wrote a story about the old Woodson, a now-demolished concrete tower in Ward 7 that I called "singularly unsuited to containing an American high school." I was never able to track down the architect or anyone involved in the design to explain what exactly they were thinking.

So I was very gratified to speak this week with Robert C. deJongh, the architect who designed Dunbar nearly 40 years ago. As you can read in the column, he explained that Dunbar was very much a building in the spirit of its times, not only in terms of architectural fashion but it terms of a city coming to grips with the 1968 riots and increasing inner-city violence.

But deJongh declaimed any personal responsibility for the open floor plans -- where several classrooms are placed together in one big room, perhaps with partitions separating them. Those designs, he explained, were favored by the school system at the time. Who possibly could have thought that was a good idea?

I found some answers in The Post archives. Granville Woodson, the assistant superintendent for buildings and grounds, waxed rhapsodic about open plans in a 1971 Post story -- arguing that the new layout would not only eliminate hallways and hence places for mischief to occur, but would also "force the teacher to be a consultant to the child" and "shift the emphasis from teaching to learning." (Woodson, incidentally, was the son of Howard D. Woodson -- a pioneering black engineer who was the namesake of Woodson High School.)

That may sound like a lot of baloney now, but did it sound like it then? After all, hindsight being 20-20 and such, perhaps it's hard for us to realize just what a disaster open classrooms would become.

But there was at least one Cassandra around: Percy L. Ellis Jr., the principal of the old Shaw Junior High School, said in the same 1971 article that the open design to be used in the new Shaw was "an architect's dream, not an educator's dream."

"They say children should be trained to work in open space, but that's a lot of baloney," he added. "The theory is a joke."

The new Shaw is currently undergoing renovations to eliminate the open space classrooms.

File photo by Andrea Bruce Woodall

By Mike DeBonis  | December 17, 2010; 5:25 PM ET
Categories:  The District  
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