TODAY   |  February 01, 2014

Legacy of historical Washington, D.C., school lives on

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School was founded in 1970 as the nation’s first high school for African-Americans, and it has a long list of elite alumni. After some troubled times the school is now returning to its former glory. TODAY’s Erica Hill reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> school at dunbar high school .

>> reporter: for generations, washington, d.c.'s paul laurence dunbar high school was a magnet for america's black elite.

>> so much was expected of you because you attended dunbar .

>> reporter: founded in 1870 as the nation's first public high school for african-americans, it drew students from across the country. among its distinguished alumni, dr. charles drew , who helped create the modern blood bank , and jazz great billy taylor .

>> i'm looking right in front of me. there's a civil rights attorney, there is a chief judge, there is a congressman, there is an artist.

>> right.

>> that's a lot to live up to.

>> reporter: principal steven jackson hopes every one of his more than 600 students will live up to the legacy of these alumni and help restore dunbar 's reputation as an academic powerhouse.

>> things really changed at dunbar with desegregation.

>> absolutely.

>> was that good or bad for dunbar ?

>> unfortunately, it was not good for dunbar . dunbar became a neighborhood school . when it became a neighborhood school , they were not able to select students from different areas of the city.

>> reporter: in 1950 , 80% of dunbar graduates went on to college. yet, by 2012 , just 29% of its students were considered proficient in reading. in the years to come, the school became a tough place to learn, described by students as dark and depressing. still, the dunbar name meant something. senior class president milante patterson says dunbar put him on the right track.

>> you've changed a lot since you started dunbar . you started with a 2.0.

>> yes.

>> you've got what now, a steady 4.0?

>> yes.

>> reporter: he's also inspired by the school 's alumni with dreams of the nfl and an architecteer degree.

>> i have to get out and make a positive effect and build on the dunbar legacy.

>> reporter: last fall, dunbar opened the doors on its new $122 million facility, a space filled with lights and hope for students past and present .

>> it just does my heart so much good to see such a beautiful people feel l ike they need a brand new attitude to come into the building.

>> reporter: while a new facility can't immediately turn this school around, its message, says dunbar alum and pulitzer prize -winning columnist colber king --

>> investing in the school to tell students about how they are valued.

>> reporter: this new dunbar also reminds students of what they can be, with plenty of alumni plaques left blank for students like milante patterson. milante has offers from three schools right now and also has an incredible supporting him along with that dunbar community. the alumni are a really important, huge presence at the school . they spend a lot of time there with the students. that has had an impact, and like milante, many of the other students there are determined to get their name on one of the blank achievement plaques around the school . the man who came up with the idea for black history month, carter g. woodson , noted historian and teacher, also a dunbar graduate.

>> incredible legacy.