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D.C. Officials Celebrate Completion Of New Dunbar High School

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The new Dunbar High School is located at First and N Streets NW.
WAMU/Martin Austermuhle
The new Dunbar High School is located at First and N Streets NW.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and alumni from historic Paul Laurence Dunbar High School gathered on Monday to celebrate the new Dunbar High — a $122 million  building that draws upon the school's history to inspire students.

"Breathtaking. Refreshing." Those are the words Brandi Joyner uses to describe the new Dunbar High School. She should know—she graduated in 2002 from the old Dunbar building that still stands next door. That imposing building, constructed in the 1970s, had few windows and no walls to separate one classroom from another. It wasn't a fitting place for a school originally founded in 1870 as the nation's first high school for black students, nor did it produce the results that the school was once known for.

The new Dunbar—all 280,000 square feet of it, located at First and N Streets NW in the Truxton Circle neighborhood—boasts a soaring and light-filled atrium, a new pool and gym, a 600-person auditorium, and four academies featuring classrooms and labs. The design maximizes learning spaces while embracing technology—city officials say that they have applied for LEED platinum status.

But more than showcase modernity, the new Dunbar is inspired by its history. The school graduated a generation of black leaders, lawyers, athletes, and artists, and their names are inscribed on 118 plaques throughout the school. Another 130 plaques are blank, hinting that any future graduate of the school could see their name featured on them.

James Pittman, class of 1951 and chairman of the 2,000-member Dunbar Alumni Association, says that the plaques are meant to inspire students. "It's not for history and history's sake alone, it's primarily to ensure that the students of today are inspired to learn that there were a lot of students before them that had a lot of obstacles to overcome and succeeded greatly," he says.

The school also features a small museum commemorating its rich history and accomplishments of its many graduates, which included Nannie Helen Burroughs, Mary Church Terrell, Carter G. Woodson, D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, and D.C. Mayor Vince Gray. During Monday's ribbon-cutting, alumni from as far back as the class of 1925 marveled at the new building while remembering their time at Dunbar, which with the new building will have occupied three facilities since locating in Truxton Circle in 1917.

D.C. officials hope that the building's transformation ushers in a new era in academic achievement. The new Dunbar will accomodate 1,100 students, more than double the 500 that have attended the school in recent years. It opens amid a years-long modernization of aging school buildings across D.C. as part of the city's aggressive attempts at educational reform.

"It's an awe-inspiring feeling to be a part of the opening of this brand new Dunbar building. This will be here for decades if not centuries. To think of the legacy that is embraced and embodied in this school, the people that have gone to this school, and now to know that there will be so many students coming in the future who will have those same opportunities," said Gray, who graduated in 1959.

The school opens to students next week.

Alison Stewart, author of First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School, a history of Dunbar High School, will be on The Kojo Nnamdi Show today at 1 p.m.

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