With all the struggles associated with the District's educational pathology, Paul Laurence Dunbar Senior High School stands out as one of its most remarkable successes.
And, just to drive home their point, officials at the historic school located in Northwest have launched a slick marketing campaign designed not only to ensure Dunbar's continued presence in the community and bolster its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] program, but to also boost enrollment at all District of Columbia Public Schools [DCPS].
"The aim of the advertisements are to let people know about all the wonderful programs we have at Dunbar, including the new program called 'iTech 360,' an initiative of Chancellor Kaya Henderson's," said Dunbar principal Steve Jackson. "However, the advertisements are also [to attract more students to] the DCPS system, [specifically] to Dunbar, which has the distinction as the nation's oldest African-American public high school."
Jackson noted that while school advertisements were first utilized by District public charter facilities, Dunbar is currently the only public high school in the city involved in a radio marketing campaign.
Jackson developed the concept for the advertisements, which feature the voice of Claude Nadir, 32, a DCPS instructional superintendent. The promos, currently broadcast on WHUR 96.3 FM and two Radio One stations, are made possible through a $10 million grant program – "Proving What's Possible" – launched earlier this year by Henderson to help her schools reach new academic heights.
Jackson said that approximately $25,000 of the $300,000 provided from the grant had previously been earmarked for the marketing campaign. The promos convey Dunbar's importance as a history-maker and emphasize several reasons students would want to attend the school. Some of the highlights include: the school was established in 1870, offers the "iTech 360" curriculum, and that Dunbar is the home of the Crimson Tide 2012 District of Columbia Interscholastic Athletic Association Turkey Bowl championship.
Jackson has been at Dunbar since 2009. He resigned in June of that year, but said he received a call to come back in December 2010 to put the school back on course "after it fell apart." Dunbar's faculty and staff are elated about the promotions, which also rattle off a list of accomplished alumni. Among them are world-renowned surgeon Dr. Charles Drew, educator and businesswoman Nannie Helen Burroughs, D.C. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton and Mayor Vincent C. Gray.
"This is an embracing of the history of Dunbar," said Jackson, who noted that a new building is currently under construction behind the existing structure in order to accommodate an anticipated influx of programs and larger student body over the next few years. "And everybody's excited about that," he said.
Nadir explained that another goal of the advertisements has been to "hop on board" Henderson's "A Capital Commitment" vision, which is expected to be fully implemented by 2017. Its targets include a higher-achieving school system that graduates more students, pulls into line low-performing schools and increases enrollment.
"But it's also about restoring the legacy of a great school that's been around for nearly 150 years," Nadir said.
Currently, DCPS has an enrollment of 43,000 students – a decline of several thousand pupils over the past two years. Nevertheless, Nadir like his Dunbar colleagues remains optimistic.
"We're living in a very exciting time where there's a lot of reform going on and we're making a lot of gains locally – at Dunbar and across the city," Nadir said. "On the other hand, we're competing for students, but a little competition never hurt anybody. It's just getting back to what the public school has to offer to neighborhood kids who can still go to the school across the street, get a stellar education and move on to a good future – whether it be in college or the workforce."
Audrey Williams, spokeswoman for the D.C. Charter School Board, acknowledged the competition the charters face. But she said it's been a common practice for the individual schools to launch their own marketing campaigns.
"Our role is strictly oversight. We authorize schools, so there are no marketing strategies initiated by us," said Williams. "The board does no marketing at all" for its 57 schools that are spread out among 100 campuses – and which during the 2011-12 academic year, enrolled 31,500 students.
"The only thing that we advertise is our recruitment expo, where we invite parents to come and see what's going on at all the schools," Williams said. "Otherwise, each school is responsible for marketing their own programs."
Meanwhile, Nadir added that there will be more such advertisements centered around Dunbar, especially as the student body continues to grow.
"Right now, we have a waiting list so long that people are fighting to get in the door," he said.