“Much has been written lately about two educational communities in DC being “pitted” against each other over the promise of a desirable piece of public land in the center of the city. Residents of the Shaw neighborhood have been advocating for a decade to rebuild the former Shaw Junior High School …
By Clare Berke, Ward 7 Resident, DCPS Teacher
Much has been written lately about two educational communities in DC being “pitted” against each other over the promise of a desirable piece of public land in the center of the city. Residents of the Shaw neighborhood have been advocating for a decade to rebuild the former Shaw Junior High School as a stand-alone neighborhood middle school. Students, staff, and alumni of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School have also been waiting over a decade for their promised building modernization. Both communities were eventually promised the same piece of land: 925 Rhode Island Ave NW. Both communities serve public school students, and both have populations that largely reflect the diversity and the socioeconomic gaps within the city.
On Tuesday, May 28, the decision over the land was made. The city council voted to approve Mayor Bowser’s plan to fully fund and build a new Banneker High School on Rhode Island Avenue NW. The council also voted to place a new Shaw Middle School in the location of the current Banneker on Euclid Street NW. The two locations are less than a mile apart and served by the same Metro station.
For many in the Banneker community, including myself as a teacher there, the council’s choice made the most logical sense. Banneker is an established program with over 500 students enrolled for next year. Since 1981, it has had a 100% graduation and college acceptance rate. Its population is 99% students of color and over 60% low-income families. It has been a beacon of hope and black excellence for almost 40 years, despite its placement in a dilapidated former junior high school building. The vote on Tuesday all-but-guarantees there will be no more delays in the long wait for an equitable high school facility, which should be completed in 2021.
But for many who hope to send their children to the new Shaw Middle School, there was deep disappointment at not being given the land that the old Shaw Junior High School still occupies, which has sat largely untouched since 2008, in the center of an increasingly affluent area. At the four neighborhood elementary schools which will likely feed into the new Shaw Middle School, many parents had set their hopes on the original location. Neighbors who touted Save Shaw MS t-shirts and yard signs say they intend to build a diverse-by-design middle school that will admit students from across the city through the DC school lottery system. Currently, the students in the neighborhood elementary schools feed into Cardozo Middle School, which was created as a temporary solution to the area’s demand for a middle grades campus. Cardozo remains under-enrolled and serves a population of 99% students of color, including many recent immigrants.
The Banneker/Shaw MS story is bittersweet. Both educational communities will, most likely, get what they need: modernized buildings in the center city area that can equitably support a growing population. Yet the narrative of being “pitted” against one another has sunk into the fabric of the conversation, weaved between the twin fears of gentrification and displacement, and embroidered with conspiracy theories about who the highly valuable public land might be sold to if no school occupies it.
Underlying it all is the reality of a poorly planned public school system. Fifty percent of DC residents attend public charter schools, and 50 percent attend traditional public schools, which include magnet programs and traditional neighborhood schools. This year, 17 neighborhood schools in the city’s poorest wards lost significant funding due to drops in student enrollment. All of these factors, coupled with the angst of a city that has failed to adequately address its history of racist housing and public policies, despite 65 years since “separate but equal” was overturned, makes for a difficult moment.
In the Banneker/Shaw MS debate, stakeholders could have come together to advocate for each other’s priorities, recognizing that all students are equally deserving of high-quality schools. But too many times, the adults’ rhetoric stood in the way of fostering a civil and positive dialogue focused on immediate solutions for both communities. In the end, a great solution was reached, but it was not done without harm. It is our responsibility as advocates for diverse and equitable public schools to move beyond our hopes for our own neighborhoods and even our own children. It is vital that we think about the bigger picture and stay away from the less important squabbles. If we are ever to successfully #RetireSegregation, people from all walks of life must find faith in our common humanity and use that strength to enter into and emerge from difficult conversations.