Dunbar High opens on time while Cardozo scrambles

A tale of two city academic campuses. Photo: Dignitaries at new Dunbar High/Malcolm L. Barnes

WASHINGTON, August 25, 2013 – In a classic tale of two city academic campuses, Mayor Vincent C. Gray last week cut the ribbon to his alma mater Dunbar High School’s sparkling new $122 million facility as celebrities such as Bill Cosby hailed the historic school’s historic values. Meanwhile, ten minutes across town, equally historic Cardozo High got the short end of the stick.

At Dunbar, Mayor Gray proudly presided over the dedication of his legacy educational school modernization centerpiece as the crème de la crème of that school’s “Living Legends”—such as class of 1955 graduate Eleanor Holmes Norton and class of 1960 graduate Vincent C. Gray—touted the school’s rich history of producing distinguished alumnae, including nine U S Postal Service commemorative stamp recipients like Senator Edward Brooke and Nannie Helen Burroughs.

Dignitaries cut ribbon at new Dunbar High complex last week. Figures in detail photo above include Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, City Administrator Allen Lew, DGS Director Brian Hanlon and Chancellor Kaya Henderson. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

“Dunbar is the second high school that the Department of General Services has built from the ground up. The first was H. D. Woodson, which now serves as a national model of how to construct a 21st century educational facility,” said the mayor. “I am confident that what we see here today will be another example of the wave of the future for fully modernized schools,” he proclaimed to the packed auditorium.

But Class of 1969 swim team captain and former school administrator Jerome Brock confided was not happy with the postage-stamp sized swimming pool, newly built across from the entrance to the auditorium.

Dunbar’s 25-yard long, less than competition class square pool. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

“As soon as I saw that it was a 25-yard pool, I realized that someone didn’t know what they are doing, because in swimming everything is measured in meters,” said Mr. Brock. “I’m not a carpenter telling an electrician how to build a house – I had a pool maintenance businesses and I was flabbergasted when I saw that pool.  If you are going to build it build it right!” he said.

Across town, the alumni tour of the humble Columbia Heights campus of Cardozo Education center was told that a dramatic, planned restoration of the school’s lower level and swimming pool would have to wait until October. But that didn’t discourage nearly 300 alumnae from showing up for the tour anyway.

Dunbar’s oldest Living Legend, 104-year old Alyce Dixon, Class of 1925. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Mr. Harvey James, Vice President of The Cardozo Hall of Fame Foundation was very enthusiastic about the renovated school, noting that over 300 supporters and friends had showed up for the tour, and that 267 actual alumnae registered for the previous week’s walk through. “We even had older alumnae from the all-white Central High School classes of 1946 through 1950 show up, and they are interested in working with the Hall Of Fame in the future,” he noted with enthusiasm.

Over at Dunbar, school Principal Stephen Jackson announced the formation of the Vincent C. Gray Leadership Academy for rising ninth graders, and claimed a 90% promotion rate for Dunbar students. But the DCPS school profiles told another story. Dunbar, with a 2012 school year enrollment of 504 students, graduated only 59% of its students and registered a mediocre 20% proficiency in math and 29% in reading.

Bill Cosby regales the audience at last week’s Dunbar opening ceremonies. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

The one dramatic impact that the ninth grade Academy generated was an increase in the 9th grade passing rate. Only 47% of first time 9th graders in 2011 completed that grade, which has the highest historical failure rate. But the pass rate increased leaped to 70% in 2012, leading Mr. Jackson to conclude his remarks by saying with confidence that “Dunbar is not coming back, we are back!”

Back across town, Cardozo enrolled 537 students in 2012 and bested Dunbar with a 30% math proficiency rate while lagging slightly behind with a 22% reading proficiency rate in a school where 99% of the students qualify for free or reduced meals due to their poverty level, and where 30% are special education enrollees. versus 25% special ed students at Dunbar.

The most telling fact of all was an equally mediocre college enrollment rate of 43% and zero percent Advanced Placement (AP) while the Banneker Academic High School about 10 blocks north across from the campus of Howard University registered an off the Richter Scale graduation rate of 98% and a college enrollment rate of 95%.

Exterior of new Dunbar High complex. (Uncredited photo via Facebook)

Ward 1 Councilman Jim Graham has fought hard for a comparable level of $130 million in DGS resources to restore the 100 year old Cardozo High. He felt that the amount spent on the Cardozo campus was comparable to the new Dunbar building. “There is always a lot of jockeying for who is going to be first and we worked to move Cardozo ahead. I’m thrilled by the product because it was a great building when it was first built and it has been returned to a splendid condition.” said Mr. Graham. 

However, he was very concerned that DGS was going to put it into service without a swimming pool and “that bothered me a lot, so I found the money to finish the swimming pool. They are scheduled to be done and the funding has been secured,” a relaxed Graham said while on vacation in Uruguay.

Dunbar was once known as the pipeline for success in DC and a finishing school for future Howard freshman. But it is now sending about 40% of its graduating seniors to colleges of any kind.

Cardozo was named, somewhat ironically, after Francis Lewis Cardozo, the first black elected official to serve a statewide position as South Carolina Secretary of State. He won the post in a 1868 Reconstruction era election. This pioneering black educator, politician and clergyman was also an ordained Presbyterian minister.

Cardozo later moved to Washington in 1884 to become the first principal of the Colored Preparatory High School where he introduced a unique new business curriculum and made it a leading school for African-Americans.

Sadly, the school formerly known as Central High School was re-named for Cardozo after the 1954 school desegregation decision integrated DC public schools The segregationist powers-that-be at that time refused to integrate what was the most prominent white school in the city and re-branded it. 

The District has invested over $252 million in school modernization money into two of the city’s most historic high school campuses at a critical crossroads for public education. Dunbar and Cardozo high schools alumnae hope it’s an investment that will last another 100 years. 


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Malcolm Lewis Barnes

As a credentialed professional photo journalist, Mr. Barnes writes for the SQUARE BUSINESS journal, served as the Business Editor and columnist for the Washington Informer, and the Community Development writer for The Common Denominator newspaper

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