Elected officials join Dunbar alumni, school district at conveyance event

By Tony E. Windsor

Laurel School District Superintendent, Shawn Larrimore, welcomed a group gathered in the Paul Lawrence Dunbar Elementary School gymnasium on Monday morning to celebrate the formal announcement of the schools conveyance to the Town of Laurel as the new home of the Laurel Police Department. The school, named in honor of Paul Laurence Dunbar who was considered one of the first influential black poets in American literature, will be turned over to the town as of July 1, 2018.

Saying it was a memorable day in the Laurel community, Larrimore expressed his appreciation to the Laurel School Board of Education, Laurel Mayor and Council and Town Manager Jamie Smith for their work in helping to work out the details necessary to convey this historic school building for use as headquarters for the Laurel Police Department.

He also pointed out that the ability for the school district to convey ownership to the town could only be accomplished by state legislative action; efforts that were undertaken by State Rep. Tim Dukes and State Senator Bryant Richardson. Laurel School Board Vice-President, Sabrina Isler, echoed Larrimores appreciation, by saying great moments rarely come into fruition without great teamwork.

Currently housing grades pre-K through 1st grade, Paul Dunbar will eventually relocate to the North Laurel Elementary School when the new elementary school under construction is complete. North Laurel Elementary School now houses students in grades second through fourth and will relocate to the new elementary school which will house grades second through fifth.

Rep. Dukes addressed Mondays audience stating that the idea for utilizing the Dunbar school as a police headquarters came about during a discussion he had with Laurel Police Chief Danny Wright shortly after the chief arrived in Laurel. I was excited to hear the energy that he portrayed when he spoke about a different creed he had coming in as police chief, Dukes said. He spoke about the idea of using Paul Dunbar among other things, as a new police station. Being concerned about unused buildings in the community, I thought what a great use of this building if it could happen.

Dukes said when the legislation to allow the school district to convey the building to the town was moving through the House and Senate, one major question was whether the building would retain its historic name of Paul Laurence Dunbar. Early on in our discussions about the potential of gaining the school building for a police station, even before this became public, Chief Wright told me he wanted to see the building keep the name of Paul Laurence Dunbar. So, I am excited about the future for this building.

Laurel Mayor John Shwed said he is sure that the Dunbar school holds a special place in the hearts of many Laurel families. On this historic occasion I am sure there are thousands of stories about the special meaning this facility has in the hearts and minds of generations of Laurel families, he said. My two children and my four grandchildren received their first educational experiences here, so it is special to me as well. I think Paul Laurence Dunbar would be proud of what is happening to the school building named in his honor.

He said the town of Laurel will act to give new life to this facility. He said the school building will allow the town to separate its administration offices from the police department, which have traditionally shared the same building on Mechanics Street; a building that also houses the Laurel Town Hall. He said Police Chief Wright and Town Manager Jamie Smith will also be working to find avenues for use of the building not utilized by the police department.

I ask the enthusiastic community to be patient as we attempt to secure financial resources for any needed renovations, or to constrict any new facilities on the property. In other words, the town of Laurel needs the necessary financial support for the renovation and operations of the facility that does not create financial stress on existing operations. I know that Chief Wright and Town Manager Smith, with input from the community, will be very successful visionary leaders in this new venture. I look forward to the exciting possibilities that will result from this change, Shwed said.

Laurel Town Councilman Jonathan Kellam, a former student and athlete at Paul Dunbar School, said it was the love of all the teachers that make his memories special.

He credits the involvement of the town, school and community for making sure that the Paul Dunbar Elementary School legacy continues. I have said this before; I see change here in Laurel, he said. Part of this change is demonstrated by people, who instead of allowing this building to sit idle, or have it torn down, the town, the schools, the community, felt it worth the effort to work together to keep this building.

I envision great things happening. My boys wrestled here 25 years after I was playing basketball here. This is something that is engrained in our community. This is a great community and this is a very special day for me. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank anyone who had anything to do with this for keeping this dream alive.

Councilwoman Cheryl Martin read a poem authored by Paul Laurence Dunbar titled, We Wear the Mask. Martin said she believes Dunbar was symbolically writing about the masks worn in the past by people of color who did not feel included in society. We thank God that we all as human beings have embraced all races and have come together and learned to love and respect one another. So I say to you, thank you Paul Laurence Dunbar for allowing us to take off our masks, she said.

The keynote speaker for the event was Howard West, who attended Paul Laurence Dunbar School and later served as a student teacher there before moving to New Jersey to continue his career in education. He shared his appreciation that the Paul Laurence Dunbar School was being dedicated for its continued use in the community during Black History Month. West said he applauds Laurel for the unity being shown here today.

West said Paul Laurence Dunbar School was built in Laurel as part of a vision by philanthropist Pierre S. DuPont who put aside about $2.5 million in the 1920s to build 92 schools for African-American children in Delaware. We in Laurel applaud Pierre DuPont and the DuPont family for allowing Paul Laurence Dunbar School to be one of those 92 schools built, he said. We also applaud this community for its involvement in allowing this school to stand. It stands because it is an icon among schools for our children to emulate and for all those who came through this school to carry on the message of this school and what it did for them.

West paid tribute to the teachers and administrators who he credits with instilling life lessons that he has used in his personal life as well as the classrooms where he has taught. He told the audience he could not leave the podium without honoring his first teacher, Dr. Cora Norwood Selby, who taught him when he attended Ross Point 215C School in rural Laurel.

Dr. Selby, a lady, a master teacher who was concerned about children, not color, but children. She believed that all children can learn. It was because of her that when I started school as a stutterer who could not fully talk, with patience she helped me overcome that obstacle. Therefore I am indebted to her for her patience, her finesse, her wisdom, her love for not just children, but people. She is our Mary McLeod Bethune of education; I call her our Dean of Education. Dr. Selby I love you.

West said he visits Laurel frequently and whenever he brings friends with him he always takes them to see the school. I am really honored to be a part of this school. I am honored to be a part of this community. I have heard it said when you leave the country, you forget the country. I left the country, but I never forgot it. I love coming back here. Laurel is unique and this school is unique. Those in charge can continue to carry the mantle because you are blessed. I am also blessed to be a part of this community and this school, he said.

According to Laurel Town Manager Smith once the police department makes the move to the new building, the vacated downstairs portion of Town Hall, which currently houses the police station, will then be converted to administrative office space. The current police department space will be utilized for town offices, but as to how, at this time, we have not gotten that far into the planning, she said.

The Dunbar school building will house the police department, but for now, the town has not determined how any additional space in that building will be utilized. We know only a portion of the Paul Dunbar building will be used for the police department, Smith said. We have discussed several options for use of the rest of the building but reached no conclusions. It is possible we may make it available for other agencies including state or non-profit agencies; nothing is official.

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