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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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