Housing Complex

Bricks and Mortarboard: Can New Buildings Turn Around D.C.’s Public Schools?

Dunbar

As class let out last Monday, the scene outside Dunbar High School felt like the close of a typical school day. Teenagers in black polos streamed into the street, where friends and family waited. A security guard urged them along, shouting repeatedly, “C’mon, let’s clear the front. Let’s go. Let’s go!”

But there was an extra charge of excitement running through the crowd. No longer were the students departing a drab 1970s-era fortress; this was their first day in the new Dunbar, a $122 million building at New Jersey Avenue and N Street NW with bright, airy common areas and a polished auditorium and gym. The new building sits on the former playing fields of the old one, which is still awaiting demolition and now serves only as a foil, reminding students how much more attractive their new surroundings are.

“It’s awesome,” gushed 12th-grader Imane. “In the old building, we didn’t have no windows. Now we have a much better environment.”

Fellow senior Vernon agreed. “It’s real elegant,” he said. “It’s a good learning environment. You can’t be in a top-notch school and not want to do better.”

There’s plenty of room for Dunbar to improve. Only 16.8 percent of the Dunbar sophomores who took the D.C. Comprehensive Assessment System test this year were proficient in math—a decline from 19.7 percent last year, at a time when most D.C. schools raised their test scores. In reading, 17.9 percent were proficient, an even bigger drop from 27.7 percent in 2012. In both categories, Dunbar ranks among the 10 worst schools in the city, excluding schools for children with disabilities.

It’s possible that the bleak surroundings have dragged down Dunbar’s test scores, and that the new building will boost them along with morale. But there’s still a glaring incongruity between the building and the students it serves: With enrollment at struggling D.C. public schools continuing to dwindle, the gleaming new Dunbar is half-empty.

The building’s capacity is 1,100 students, according to Department of General Services spokesman Darrell Pressley. Last year, Dunbar’s enrollment was just 504. Enrollment this week stands at 546, though DCPS is projecting a total of 584.

“The new Dunbar is actually built for 100 more students than the old Dunbar,” says At-Large Councilmember David Catania, who chairs the Council’s education committee and has sparred recently with Mayor Vince Gray over education policy. “I support new state-of-the-art facilities, but I think there’s something to be said for aligning the size of the buildings with the population.”

Earlier in the day last Monday, Gray and DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson visited several schools, including the freshly renovated Cardozo High School at 13th and Clifton streets NW. In addition to its spiffy new glass atria and commemorative murals, the building also now hosts the Shaw Middle School—without which it, like Dunbar, would be half-empty. Gray and Henderson stopped into a sixth-grade classroom, where Henderson asked the students what they thought of their building.

“It’s new,” said one student. “It’s big,” noted another. “A lot of stairs,” added a third. “It cost a lot to get it rebuilt,” chimed in a perceptive fourth.

$130 million, to be precise. Gray thinks the investment is worth it. “It sends a tremendous value statement,” he told me as we departed the school. “When they walk into a school that looks like a dump, that’s a statement about what their value is.”

But does throwing money at a school building actually improve performance? Cardozo, like Dunbar, has struggled with academics as well as enrollment. Its sophomores’ reading proficiency fell nearly six percentage points from 2012 to 2013, dropping to under 20 percent.

Glen Earthman, a professor at Virginia Tech’s School of Education who has studied the relationship between school buildings and student performance, says his research has shown that new buildings do boost test scores, sometimes as much as 10 percent.

“It’s a very simple reason: Older buildings do not contain the building elements that new buildings do that impact learning, such as air conditioning, proper lighting, controlled acoustics, proper equipment, and even the absence of graffiti,” he says. He’s found aesthetic improvements can actually have a bigger effect on student performance than structural ones.

But Earthman’s studies haven’t gone on long enough to determine whether the performance boost is a permanent one or just a short-term bump that fades with time. “I don’t know if it’s just the newness that they react to, or the amenities in there,” he says. “But I think if there is a bump, it’s a long-lasting one, in terms of years, not in terms of months.”

There’s some evidence that D.C.’s school modernizations have brought a bump. At Anacostia High School, whose renovation was completed a year ago, combined math and reading proficiency jumped from 14.5 percent in 2012 to 19.1 percent this year, though it’s too soon to say whether that improvement will last.

Still, critics like Catania argue that the Gray administration isn’t getting at the root of the problem: the systemic obstacles to higher enrollment at schools like Dunbar and Cardozo.

Catania says the schools modernization program has brought “a disproportionate investment in high schools,” where enrollment is slipping, rather than in the feeder elementary and middle schools that could help reverse the declining enrollment at high schools. According to a chart prepared by his staff, the Office of Planning expects elementary schools to account for 97 percent of DCPS population growth by 2017, but they’re set to receive only 46 percent of the school modernization investment in that time period. High schools, by contrast, are expected to shed students, but they’ll receive 37 percent of the total investment.

Enrollment data show that while the number of students starting kindergarten, first grade, and second grade at traditional public schools increased from 2011 to 2012, enrollment in 10th, 11th, and 12th grades dropped. There were 4,123 children starting kindergarten at DCPS schools last year, but just 2,558 starting 10th grade.

That’s likely due in part to the increasing number of young professionals choosing to raise their children in the District. But if middle and high schools fail to improve and these parents continue to follow the trend toward charter schools—or move to private or suburban schools—high school enrollment will remain low. (Charter enrollment grew by 10 percent last year, compared to just 1 percent for traditional public schools.)

“We’ve built these fantastic structures,” says Catania, “but unless there are improved feeder patterns and improved middle school options, there are going to be these beautiful buildings that are unused.”

Henderson, who has pointed to improved test scores across the city to argue that her approach has been working, says the new buildings will make “a tremendous difference.” But she says they’re ultimately not what’ll make or break the schools.

“I don’t think it’s the building that’s going to make the increase in scores,” she says. “I think it’s leadership.”

Under Gray, DCPS hasn’t made the kinds of radical changes undertaken by Henderson’s predecessor, Michelle Rhee, and Gray has emphasized the need for continuity rather than some of the reforms pushed by Catania. Henderson has credited some of her more modest policies, like new curricula and experimenting with longer school days, as well as personnel changes, for improving test scores.

 * * *

A week before the new Dunbar opened to students, Ada C. Banks sat in its spacious auditorium, watching as Gray, a fellow alum of the school, dedicated the building. Banks first came to Dunbar more than 70 years ago, graduating in the class of 1934. I asked her how the new building compared to the Dunbar she remembered, when it was housed in a building even older than the one that now sits vacant.

“Boy,” she said with a wide smile. “It’s like another world.”

The question is whether an otherworldly building can help Dunbar match the prestige it had back in Banks’ days there, when it was one of the premier African-American schools in the country. It has a long way to go.

Photo by Aaron Wiener 

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  • NE John

    It's **any** windows. You're in 12th grade now Imane!

  • Mr.Remember

    If that's the case, then Banneker should be in dire straights as they have not seen a new building iniative coming forth.

  • CommonDenominator

    I heard Banneker is scheduled for a 2017 rehab

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  • noodlez

    YO WEINERSNITCHEL HATE TO BE A BIT NIT PICKY BUT THE NEW SCHOOOL IS LOCATED ON THE CORNER OF 1ST AND N STS NW. THE OLD SCHOOL WAS LOCATED ON NEW JERSEY AVE AND O STS NW.

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  • Mr.Remember

    Our new schools might not improve test scores. But it seems that every new school built has been broken-into, so it has improved the criminal element.

    Cathy Lanier - our new Chancellor.

  • name

    While new schools don't necessarily fix the years of mental and physical abuse that poor black DC kids suffer from their drunk, drug addled and abusive parents (same thing happens to poor white kids in WV and Kentucky, which kind of makes DC the black Kentucky), they look good to newer better educated white parents which may make some start to enroll their kids. Once a sufficient number of white kids are enrolled, the exam grades will rise and more white parents will enroll their kids. They remaining black kids will benefit from a number of factors:

    1) The overall reputation of the school will be better, so lower bell curve kids will benefit from some of the 'gloss' regardless of whether their personal scores improve.

    2) Their will be fewer troubled kids, so the few troubled kids that remain will cause a smaller percentage disruption to overall instruction time. This will improve the learning environment for the lower achieving kids and provide more opportunity for teachers to spend 'extra' time with them.

    3) The higher achieving kids will help foster a culture of achievement and dreaming bigger, which may (to everyone's hopes and prayers) influence the lower achieving kids.

  • noodlez

    @NAME-FUCK YOU AND YOUR LONG WINDED VERSION OF CALLING DCPS LOW QUALITY. SLIM YOUR COGNITIVE DISSONANCE IS TEETERING ON SCHZIOPHRENIA. BLACK KENTUCKY: WOW! YOU ARE SO ORIGINAL. YOU THOUGHT OF THAT ALL BY YOURSELF? YOUR MULTITASKING SKILL OF DICKSUCKING, GETTING RAMRODDED AND PUTTING TOGETHER A COHESIVE STATEMENT NEVER CEASES TO AMAZE ME.

    WHAT MAKES YOU THINK THAT LITTLE WHITE CHILDREN ARE SMARTER THAN BLACKS? A FUCKING TEST CREATED BY WHITE FOLK? YOU DUMB FUCK STOP WATCHING T.V. AND HIT THE STREETS. WHITE CHILDREN ARE JUST AS TROUBLED AND THEIR PARENTS ARE JUST AS FUCKED UP. JUST BECAUSE THEY GOTTA HEAD START ON THE MONEY MAKING ASPECT OF LIFE DOESN'T MAKE THEM SMARTER SHITHEAD!

    IF YOUR THEORY FOR SOME REASON IS TRUE WHAT MAKES YOU THINK WHITE CHILDREN ARE THE PANACEA? AFTER THE LAST 400 YEARS OR SO I’LL PASS. I’LL TAKE SOME ASIAN CHILDREN ANYDAY OF THE WEEK AND TWICE ON SUNDAY TO LEND SOME CREDENCE TO YOUR WACK THOUGHT PROCESS.

    DUDE YOU MIGHT WANNA CHECK OUT THE INCREASE IN HEROIN USAGE BY WHITEYS YOUNG AND OLD AND GET BACK TO ME. YOU KEEP ON LOOKING AT THE NOW. WHILE I'M LOOKING AT THE NEXT 20-30 YEARS WHEN WHITE FOLK WILL GET SO CAUGHT UP IN THE URBAN LIFESTYLE THEY WON'T KNOW WHAT THE FUCK HIT THEM. ALREADY SEEING THE ALCOHOL CONSUMPTION HAVE AN EFFECT ON THE FAKE ASS HIPPIE CROWD WHO SHOULD BE HAVING AND RAISING CHILDREN INSTEAD OF RIDING THEIR FIXIE TO THE NEXT BEER/SWILL GARDEN.

    FOLK ARE SO INTRIGUED BY THEM DAMN PANDA CAMERAS YOU MIGHT WANNA INSTALL ONE UP SO FOLK CAN WITNESS THE LIFESTYLE OF A WACKADOODLE.

    ROLL TIDE ROLL.
    ONE CITY.

  • Namehere

    “The new Dunbar is actually built for 100 more students than the old Dunbar,” says At-Large Councilmember David Catania, ..... I think there’s something to be said for aligning the size of the buildings with the population.”

    So how many high schools -- or any schools -- does a city the size of D.C. need? Instead of trying to maintain large numbers of half-empty buildings, some of which go back to the 1940s and earlier, why doesn't it make sense to consolidate students into modern, well-designed learning centers? The new Dunbar was built for over 1100 students and only has a little more than 500? That means that 500 other kids are stuck in older, crappier buildings. Many suburban high schools have more than 2,000 students, and their size allows them to provide elective courses and specialized after-school programs that D.C. kids will never see. D.C. doesn't need a school on every block.

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