09/05/2013 04:31 pm ET Updated Nov 05, 2013

Alison Stewart's History of D.C.'s Dunbar High School and Its Future

Alison Stewart's First Class is the history of the rise and fall of Washington D.C.'s elite Dunbar High School. It tells a story that cannot be ignored if we really believe that school improvement can be the civil rights movement of the 21st century.

Stewart tells the powerful story of Dunbar's inspiring role in "a national movement for justice and citizenship." Dunbar's educators made the best of the demeaning and cruel Jim Crow system. Their achievements were "stunning." Graduates of Dunbar led the legal fight against de jure segregation and pioneered world class innovations in medicine, scholarship, art and music. One eminent Dunbar graduate after another, often after earning doctorates from prestigious universities, returned to build an incredible learning institution.

Tragically, the elite institution was collateral damage resulting from the grudging way that America's schools were later desegregated, but not properly integrated, in the second half of the 20th century. Stewart then recalls the rushed 21st century school improvements imposed by Michelle Rhee on Dunbar and D.C. that, I would say, were equally inept.

I must emphasize that First Class deserves a full and careful reading, as I focus on a scene late in the book which foreshadowed the defeat of Rhee's contemporary reforms. She recounts a conversation between a student who is cutting class and the new director of Dunbar. It was the type of conversation that a pro-"reform" filmmaker might edit and spin into teacher-bashing propaganda. The director's interpretation of the discussion justified the replacement of 60 percent of Dunbar's teachers.

George Leonard, the director of the New York-based Friends of Dunbar recalled a disgruntled student who said, "My life is a toilet. I don't even want to talk to you with that tie on. And I just want to be left alone until that bell rings so I can go to my next class that I may cut also."

According to Leonard, the boy wanted get away from him because he (and his tie) "represent everything that is bad in my life." But, Leonard invested a half hour talking to the student. As the 59-year-old told it, the 35-minute conversation was probably the longest that the teenager had spoken to "anybody that represents what I represent." Leonard made the kid go through the uncomfortable process of being quiet, holding his head down, and accepting "the reality that, at the rate he is going, he's not going to graduate."

Leonard's take was that he got the student's attention. That's why the kid replied, "So, now you think I'm not going to make it? I'm going to make it. I don't care what you say."

Leonard's interpretation of the student's inner monologue was that the teen was trying to say, "'I want to feel comfortable with being messed up.'" But, Leonard believed he had communicated, "I wouldn't allow that, because I was going to challenge him until I couldn't." Leonard reached that determination after the student stopped responding and "just kept walking."

Leonard later called the kid's mother and had a meeting with them. Leonard believed that during the subsequent conversation, "their final exchange brought the light." The student said, "I already get kicked out of a school already because I curse people out." His final conclusion was that the boy got quiet because "he doesn't want to hear what makes sense." And, what was missing with the majority of D.C. teachers is that they would not take the effort to do what he had just done.

To his credit, Leonard also said that schools need an open conversation about mental health. He believed, accurately, that inner city schools like Dunbar need a mental health unit, even a dorm, and that that would require "major dollars."

Stewart left it to the readers to decide whether Leonard was as skillful as he thought in counseling students. She let the readers decide whether they believe that those two meetings turned around the troubled student, and so will I. She also left it to the readers to determine whether it made sense to start with the mass firing of teachers and to then speculate about providing the mental health supports.

But, Leonard's account of the dialogue raises the question of whether he, like Michelle Rhee and so many other "reformers," are legends only in their own minds. They would have needed many more such conversations before having the experience necessary to impose their theories on the toughest schools. They should have been much slower to judge us teachers, who have had thousands of similar conversations and who have learned through practice what it takes to turn students around.

And, I can't help but suggesting to Leonard that it is not difficult to shame a troubled student into hanging his head; it is no harder than blaming urban educators. A first start in improving the lives of suffering students is to read Alison Stewart's accounts of the old Dunbar's efforts to build kids self-esteem.