School administrator increases graduation rate through journalism

Born in the early 1950s, Richard Dunn Sr. grew up as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. spread his message to the world, and he considered King a prominent figure in his own life.

“Growing up, Dr. King was my hero. He was murdered when I was 15, and I remember the army taking over our school. I grew up in Washington, DC, and the military was everywhere. How sad I was that day that he passed away,” Dunn said during the 2022 Martin Luther King Jr. Freedom Breakfast.

The message and the movement remained true to Dunn, and he carried King’s words throughout his life and work.

Dunn is the Athens community member recipient of the 2022 President’s Fulfilling the Dream Award. This award, presented at the Freedom Breakfast, celebrates and recognizes students, faculty, staff and community members of Athens who work to fulfill King’s legacy through service and outreach.

Dunn is currently the founder and executive director of the Athens-Clarke County High School Completion Initiative, organizing and leading a program that aims to increase graduation rates at county high schools. The program aims to help students, especially minority students, reach their final destination of graduation, but also helps them explore options for future careers after leaving high school, whether at university, in the army or directly on the job market.

“You spend a lot more life beyond high school. I was 17 when I left high school, so I’ve spent the last 52 years out of it,” he said.

Dunn’s work has helped increase graduation rates in Athens-Clarke County and engage students in their education.

“The seeds of high school dropouts are planted in elementary school, they grow in middle school and in high school, they drop out, so if you want to make a difference, you have to start as early as possible,” Dunn said, pointing out the importance of school perseverance programs.

Dunn’s career spans decades and has impacted thousands of students, including through his work in journalism outreach programs.

Dunn earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Georgia, and after spending time in Atlanta and Tuskegee, Alabama, he returned to Athens with plans to start a journal. The Athens Courier was established in the late 1980s to meet the needs of Athens’ minority community.

“At that time, in the 1980s, there was a whole series of disparities, economic disparities, educational disparities, medical disparities. Athens wasn’t quite the city it is today,” Dunn said of his early work in Athens.

There have been, and continue to be, serious barriers to high school graduation, particularly for black students, and reporting on these issues led Dunn to look into his work in the field of education.

Richard Dunn Sr. is the founder and executive director of the Athens-Clarke County High School Completion Initiative, organizing and directing a program that aims to increase graduation rates in county high schools. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Dunn created the Education Matters program to expose young black students to journalism and radio, and also to help them tell their own stories. Airing Saturday mornings on WXAG 92.7 FM, the program acts as a fully operational youth production, allowing students to work on all aspects of the show, from connecting with guest speakers to using sound equipment.

The program has a high retention rate, with some students staying with the program for most of their middle school and high school years. Participants in the program have an above-average graduation rate and have even graduated from the program to pursue studies in journalism.

“For a lot of kids, it’s an opportunity to be creative and expressive, and to have a voice that isn’t denied or closed off,” he said.

He also created MEU Radio-Athens, which stands for Music, Education and Upliftment. Similar to Education Matters, this is an entirely youth-run radio station. Students select the music and produce the shows and commercials aired on the station, giving them experience in running a radio station. It also includes a summer camp where students can be fully immersed in the career of a journalist.

“If the students want to do journalism, that’s a plus, but I don’t impose it on them. I see journalism as a way to open their eyes. That’s what journalism has done for me. It opened my eyes to a whole big world that was so much bigger than the neighborhood I grew up in,” he said. “And so you can open their eyes, you can expose people to opportunities, and they can make their own decisions.”

Dunn hopes to develop more youth reporting systems, potentially partnering with UGA faculty and staff at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. Dunn has already brought students from Athens-Clarke County Schools to tour the college and speak with Grady students and faculty, and he hopes to expand the partnership between the county public schools and the university.

Dunn’s future goals for programs revolve around the word sustainability. Now in the latter part of his career, Dunn is working to ensure these programs can continue and thrive long after his retirement. With his 11 grandchildren, Dunn sees the next generation flourish in his family as well as in the schools he serves and wants to ensure they have a better chance of succeeding in their education.

Again speaking of King, Dunn said, “He said in his ‘Drum Major Instinct’ speech, ‘Don’t talk about all the awards I got when I died. Talk about how I lived to serve others,” and that’s what I try to do, honor it through my service.

“I’ve always wanted to live my life as my hero, so getting this award that honors him means a lot to me. But it’s not an award I was looking for when I was doing my job,” the ever-humble Dunn said. about his accomplishments and impact “I sought to do what Dr. King said to do, which was to serve others.”

Martha K. Merrill