"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Alison Stewart's Great History of D.C.'s Dunbar High School

Alison Stewart's First Class brings us full circle. Actually, Stewart guides us through a variety of recurring social, moral, and educational cycles that undoubtedly will continue to repeat themselves in one way or another. Her history of the rise and fall of Washington D.C.'s elite Dunbar High School tells a story that cannot be ignored if we really believe that education can be the civil rights movement of the 21st century.

Stewart begins with her mother, Carol Stewart, as she watches the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Carol, a retired biology teacher, marvels, "What a magnificent display of what Homo Sapiens is capable of in his most civilized state?" That evening, when asked about the Dunbar High School marching band, Carol comments, "I can't believe those girls were switchin' their behinds ... That is not what young ladies should do!"

A few pages later, Alison Stewart portrayed the director of the Dunbar marching band, Robert Chambers, who should have been able to celebrate his achievement. Starting off as a volunteer, Chambers rebuilt the band and restored much of the excellence that Dunbar had once known. After earning the privilege of participating in the inaugural parade for our first African-American president, Chambers was mourning the misbehavior of his students at the parade and the subsequent high-profile controversy. As Stewart and Chambers conversed, loitering students intruded and a man's voice came over the P.A. system, "At this time I need for all of my security administration to make sure they are walking the halls and [to] remind some of our students if there are any fights in my building today ... today will be your last day at Dunbar Senior High School."

After previewing the demise of Dunbar, Stewart tells the powerful story of its inspiring role in "a national movement for justice and citizenship." Dunbar's educators made the best of the demeaning and cruel Jim Crow system. Their achievements were "stunning." Graduates of Dunbar led the legal fight against de jure segregation, pioneered world class innovations in medicine, scholarship, art and music. One eminent Dunbar graduate after another, often after earning doctorates from prestigious universities, returned to build an incredible learning institution.

Dunbar was devoted to "racial uplift." To use one of the upsetting phrases of the time, students were taught to become "a credit to our race." An extreme work ethic and discipline was instilled so that students even assumed a "military cadence" while walking down the halls. Dunbar became an elite institution, with a measure of elitism. For the most part, however, Stewart recounts an inspiring narrative of building students' self-esteem, so that they could become transformative figures.

Dunbar contributed greatly to racial justice. To expect the school's high expectations to create equality for all of the victims of slavery and subsequent oppression, however, would be like the expectation that Cambridge and Oxford, themselves, could cure all of the evils of British colonialism. And, after desegregation was ordered in 1954, Dunbar became a neighborhood school that was eventually undermined by the legacies of poverty and oppression.

Stewart concludes with portraits of three educators in the struggling 21st century Dunbar. A young, white English teacher, Matthew Stuart, gamely tries to teach in classes serving everyone who has been left behind, unable to avail themselves of the educational choices that have been created by charters and other options. Stuart has to ignore a variety of distractions, including students who are free to cruise on their iPhones, get up and share photos of tattoos, and come to class when they feel like it. Stuart is able to identify two more successful educators - both coaches - who are achieving success.

Perhaps it is grimly symbolic that these two educators, Jerron Joe and Marvin Parker, have cultivated excellence in athletics, rather than the classroom. They have mandated the same type of rigor as the old elite Dunbar. Joe and Parker provide the mentorship necessary to create the peer pressure required to produce excellence. Joe keeps up the Dunbar tradition of alumni returning to the school to produce champions. Parker is able to demand that his track girls run before sunrise. They thus exemplify the qualities that would be necessary, but not sufficient, to recreate Dunbar's successes in academics.

Stewart gives no answers. But, First Class explores the issues that we must wrestle with before America can overcome its original "human stain" and create educational equity. I will go into more depth in Stewart's wonderful book in a subsequent post.

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