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First Class
Cover of First Class
First Class
The Legacy of Dunbar, America's First Black Public High School
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Combining a fascinating history of the first U.S. high school for African Americans with an unflinching analysis of urban public-school education today, First Class explores an underrepresented and largely unknown aspect of black history while opening a discussion on what it takes to make a public school successful. In 1870, in the wake of the Civil War, citizens of Washington, DC, opened the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first black public high school in the United States; it would later be renamed Dunbar High and would flourish despite Jim Crow laws and segregation. Dunbar attracted an extraordinary faculty: its early principal was the first black graduate of Harvard, and at a time it had seven teachers with PhDs, a medical doctor, and a lawyer. During the school's first 80 years, these teachers would develop generations of highly educated, successful African Americans, and at its height in the 1940s and '50s, Dunbar High School sent 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as in too many failing urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students are barely proficient in reading and math. Journalist and author Alison Stewart—whose parents were both Dunbar graduates—tells the story of the school's rise, fall, and possible resurgence as it looks to reopen its new, state-of-the-art campus in the fall of 2013.

Combining a fascinating history of the first U.S. high school for African Americans with an unflinching analysis of urban public-school education today, First Class explores an underrepresented and largely unknown aspect of black history while opening a discussion on what it takes to make a public school successful. In 1870, in the wake of the Civil War, citizens of Washington, DC, opened the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, the first black public high school in the United States; it would later be renamed Dunbar High and would flourish despite Jim Crow laws and segregation. Dunbar attracted an extraordinary faculty: its early principal was the first black graduate of Harvard, and at a time it had seven teachers with PhDs, a medical doctor, and a lawyer. During the school's first 80 years, these teachers would develop generations of highly educated, successful African Americans, and at its height in the 1940s and '50s, Dunbar High School sent 80 percent of its students to college. Today, as in too many failing urban public schools, the majority of Dunbar students are barely proficient in reading and math. Journalist and author Alison Stewart—whose parents were both Dunbar graduates—tells the story of the school's rise, fall, and possible resurgence as it looks to reopen its new, state-of-the-art campus in the fall of 2013.

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About the Author-
  • Alison Stewart is an award-winning journalist whose 20-year career includes anchoring and reporting for MTV, PBS, NBC News, ABC News, and CBS News. Most recently she was the host of the NPR program, The TED Radio Hour. She lives in New York City. Melissa Harris-Perry is an author, a political commentator, a television host, and a professor of political science at Tulane University. She lives in New Orleans.

Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    May 13, 2013
    When Dunbar High School opened in Washington, D.C., in 1916, it was already a historic institution. The first public high school for black students in the U.S. had its roots in the basement of a black church in 1870 as the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, and its flowering as M Street High School (1891–1916). The school flourished through the mid-20th century, and suffered during the latter half; its history traverses the rise and decline of public education in America’s cities. The school currently has 98% black students and a dismal performance record, but previously Dunbar had 100% black students and many famous graduates: Jean Toomer (1914); Sterling Brown (1918); Charles Drew (1922); and Eleanor Holmes Norton (1955), to name a few. Journalist Stewart’s book, featuring a foreword by Tulane political scientist Melissa Harris-Perry, embraces principals, staff, and teachers, buildings and curricula, public policy debates and internecine ones, through Dunbar’s nearly 150-year history; interviews with alumni are included as well. Worthy as this remarkable history is, it ambles from the chatty to the clunky, from the storyteller’s impulse to the political edge. Nevertheless, Stewart’s question, “What will the newest incarnation of Dunbar be?” remains germane, especially as its new building is scheduled to open in fall 2013. Contemplating Dunbar’s history may offer answers. 25 b&w photos. Agent: Jane Dystel, Dystel & Goderich Literary Management.

  • Kirkus

    May 15, 2013
    Broadcast journalist Stewart examines the legendary reputation for excellence of a historic, all-black Washington, D.C., high school, then documents the decline of that excellence in more recent decades. Since both of her parents were graduates of Dunbar High School and now have successful careers, the author took an interest in the subject. Like so many other proud (and sometimes famous) Dunbar graduates, Stewart's parents felt dismay at how America's first black public high school let standards slip. But at the beginning of the 21st century, Dunbar, founded in 1870, seemed like yet another chaotic inner-city institution, with rowdy students the norm instead of the exception. Stewart is an able historian, and the saga of how blacks and influential whites managed to establish a school of the caliber of Dunbar in a viciously segregated society so soon after the Civil War is extraordinary and inspirational by any measure. The mostly chronological narrative is less lively as Stewart offers a contemporary catalog of educational horrors. So many authors before Stewart have chronicled problems similar to Dunbar's that reading might present a feeling of deja vu for many readers. Stewart persuasively places significant blame on parents of contemporary Dunbar students for showing little or no involvement in the school activities of their children. The director of the marching band told Stewart that he had never met the parents of the participating children. The author suggests that the model of Barack Obama as a black president fails to work for teenagers who have never shown the interest or aptitude for learning subjects that will lead to a college education. A well-reported, passionate study of the triggers for failure and success within American urban education.

    COPYRIGHT(2013) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    Starred review from July 1, 2013

    Since before the Civil War, Washington, DC, has been home to a thriving black middle-class community, so it's of little surprise that the city was the location of the nation's first black public high school: the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, later renamed Dunbar. Veteran journalist Stewart, the daughter of two Dunbar grads, tackles the history of this significant institution in a book filled with juicy quotations and lively asides. Dunbar alumni include the first black member of a U.S. presidential cabinet, the first black U.S. army general, the creator of the modern blood bank, and the first black U.S. senator since Reconstruction. Once a quasi-magnet school that families would move to Washington to attend, Dunbar became just another neighborhood high school after desegregation. Today, Dunbar shares the problems of many urban public high schools: high staff turnover, low test scores, decaying facilities, and a profound lack of hope on the institutional level. VERDICT Stewart's history of a single school also manages to tell the story of black DC, of school desegregation, and of education reform. One need not be a Washington native or a Dunbar grad to appreciate this thought-provoking and thoroughly pleasant history.--Molly McArdle, Library Journal

    Copyright 2013 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • Booklist

    July 1, 2013
    In 1870, the Preparatory High School for Colored Youth became the first black public high school in the nation, a prized accomplishment for Washington, D.C., as free people of color and newly freed slaves stretched the boundaries that still remained in postslavery America. Later renamed Dunbar High, the school became famous for its highly accomplished graduates, many of whom were the first blacks to enter Ivy League schools and break down barriers in a wide range of professions, from the law to medicine. For more than 80 years, the school maintained legendarily high standards in a segregated school system and developed fiercely loyal, solidly middle-class alumni. But desegregation and changing demographics slowly eroded the reputation of the school until it became just another inner-city school with low achievement and high drop-out rates. Drawing on interviews with alumni, teachers, and students, Stewart recalls the storied history of Dunbar, its part in the tumultuous politics of the D.C. school system, and current efforts to reconstruct the school and revive its former glory. A fascinating account of the legacy of a legendary school.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2013, American Library Association.)

  • her own parents included—Stewart will convince you that there's cause for hope, and that the school's brightest days may still be ahead." —President Bill Clinton

    "In First Class, Alison Stewart skillfully chronicles the rise and fall of Dunbar High School, America's first black public high school. Recalling the institution's extraordinary legacy and the lives of its accomplished alumni

  • what a great book." Rachel Maddow, author of Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power, and host of The Rachel Maddow Show

    "The US Army's first black general. The first black federal judge. The first black cabinet secretary. If you pull the thread that ties together these (and so many other) pioneers in African American achievement, you find the story of Dunbar High School. Alison Stewart uncovers the hidden history of a great American institution, and shows us the moving, herculean, human effort it took to build it in the first place, and to rebuild it now. What an amazing story

  • Hill Harper, actor and author of Letters to a Young Brother

    "Many of the legal minds behind school desegregation learned their sense of self and sense of determination at Dunbar High School. First Class explains how Dunbar produced extraordinary men and women who could be role models for any child of any era."

  • Jon Meacham, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson and the White House

    "A gifted journalist, Alison Stewart tells this remarkable story with depth and insight. Meticulously researched and engagingly written, First Class does what great books should do: it finds universal meaning in particular places. In Stewart, Dunbar's complicated life and times have found a brilliant biographer."

  • the extraordinary story of a historic school and its remarkable students and teachers. With great style and real care, Alison Stewart weaves a wonderful tale of adversity, triumph, and overcoming." —Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News

    "First Class is first rate

  • Publisher's Weekly

    "[author Alison] Stewart's question, 'What will the newest incarnation of Dunbar be?' remains germane, especially as its new building is scheduled to open in fall 2013. Contemplating Dunbar's history may offer answers."

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