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.

To read more on Dunbar:

NBC Washington, December 14, 2010

Video, NBC Washington, December 14, 2010

The Washington Post, December 15, 2010

The Washington Informer, December 15, 2010

American School & University, December 17, 2010

World Interior Design Network, December 17, 2010

The Washington Post, December 14, 2010