Who says learning can’t be energy-efficient? Schools have completed some of the nation’s most sustainable projects and become leaders in green building design. Washington D.C.’s own Dunbar High School recently took the lead on sustainable buildings, receiving the “Greenest School in the World” distinction from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). It achieved Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Platinum certification in 2015, scoring 91 out of 110 possible points on the USGBC rating system. Green features of the building include a 482 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic solar system, two 20,000 gallon cisterns to conserve potable water, and the largest ground-source geothermal system in the District.

Dunbar High School was founded in 1870 as the first public high school for African-Americans. The school has a rich history, and was home to many notable figures in politics and the civil rights movement. However, in recent years, Dunbar has struggled to score well in academic performance rankings. From 1977-2012, Dunbar was located in a dark, high-rise building deemed by many as unfit for learning. Dunbar’s test scores demonstrated this: only one third of the student body met reading and math standards in 2012.

Since relocating to the new building, however, Dunbar student achievement has improved significantly. Opened in 2013, the $122 million project designed by consulting firm Perkins Eastman is built to engage students in the learning process. The model includes many windows to let in natural sunlight and high-level acoustics to engage student-teacher dialogue. These features are already making a difference. In 2014, only a year after Dunbar’s relocation, its students boasted the highest standardized test score gains in D.C.

Improving our nation’s buildings can provide a foundation for a happier, more productive society. The Dunbar community hopes that this new building will help the school return to its former glory. Notable Dunbar figures are featured in the building’s design to connect students to the past and inspire their futures. These include Edward Brooke III, the first African-American elected to the Senate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, D.C.’s Congressional Delegate, and the school’s namesake, poet Paul Laurence Dunbar. Alumni names are sketched in the school’s floor panels, their portraits hung on the walls. Many panels were intentionally left empty, Principal Stephen Jackson noted, because, “We let students know that this empty plaque could be you someday.”


Author: Rachael Shook