As a student at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kala Threatt begrudgingly took on a course load he said oftentimes intimidated him.
However, with the support of teachers, administrators and peers, Threatt successfully matriculated through Banneker, even while taking Latin and typing classes that he didn’t find relevant to his academic and professional pursuits.
Decades later, Threatt enthusiastically admits how short-sighted he had been in his assessment. He continues to credit those four years, what many call the “Banneker experience,” with adequately preparing him for college and the professional world.
These days, Threatt works as a maintenance administrator and an associate of Shukri’s Goldsmiths, his father’s Afrocentric jewelry business. He’s also enjoying marital bliss with his Banneker classmate, Melonie Threatt.
“I have to give it to Banneker. When I got to the real world, it made my life easier. I had the knowledge to get my jobs and do well on them,” said Threatt, a 1991 Banneker alumnus.
“I tell people going to Banneker to not let the school intimidate them. Going there makes it easy to be motivated. I didn’t have to do it by myself. They work with your parents and you work with your peers.”
Banneker Alumni Celebrate, Organize and Reflect on 40 Years
Threatt counted among more than 300 alumni, students, current and former staff, administrators, family and community members who converged on the campus of Banneker Academic High School on July 1 to commemorate the school’s 40 years of academic excellence.
Though 2021 marked 40 years of Banneker’s existence, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed commemoration activities by a couple of years. During that time, students, faculty and staff moved into a new state-of-the-art campus at 1600 Ninth Street NW.
The Banneker 40th anniversary alumni celebration, which followed a gala in March, marked the launch of the Banneker Alumni Society, an effort to energize Banneker’s alumni network around further supporting the school.
Throughout much of Saturday afternoon, people of various Banneker classes and generations spoke among one another, while Garvin Brooms of Banneker’s class of 1990 kept music emanating through the space. The Common Ground Band, a live band that includes saxophonist and 1989 Banneker alumnus Courtney Nero, played contemporary jazz and funk in the school cafeteria.
In the courtyard, a grill master cheffed up burgers and hot dogs, while alumni feasted on cookout delicacies. Children frolicked in a station set up just for them, while some Banneker alumni sold their wares and promoted their independent ventures in the vending area.
Meanwhile, several people participated in a tour of 1600 Ninth Street NW.
Prominent alumni who showed up on Saturday include: Prince George’s County Executive Angela Alsobrooks (class of 1989), activist-theologian and former Washington Informer editor Rahiel Tesfamariam (class of 1999), Pastor Delonte Gholston of Peace Fellowship Church (class of 1998), and Karim D. Marshall (class of 1999), an attorney and one-time at-large D.C. Council candidate.
On Saturday, Banneker alumni acknowledged teachers, administrators, alumni and others who passed away. They later celebrated Principal Anita Berger and dean of students Janice Dennis before wrapping up festivities with the singing of “Family,” a song that each class has sung at graduation since Banneker’s inception.
While speaking before her fellow alumni, Alsobrooks, a Democratic candidate for Maryland Senator Ben Cardin’s seat, reflected on her first foray into politics as a candidate for student treasurer at Banneker in the 1980s. She said that experience set the foundation for her matriculation to Duke University and subsequent ventures.
In her request for Banneker alumni to pay it forward, Alsobrooks alluded to the recent Supreme Court decision that weakened affirmative action.
“We have been given so much and we have an obligation to give back,” Alsobrooks said. “In this world where the Supreme Court is doing scary things… we have to keep the fire going to ensure every person coming into this school has the tools to be trained. We have been trained to save the world [so] let’s share what we have been able to do.”
Sheila Bunn, a 1990 alumna and member of the 40th anniversary planning committee, echoed those sentiments, telling The Informer that the Banneker Alumni Society will soon develop an organizational infrastructure to carry out its mission.
“It’s up to us as alumni to volunteer and financially support the school,” said Bunn, who currently serves as Ward 7 D.C. Councilmember Vincent C. Gray’s chief of staff.
“We have students from all eight wards, some who need additional support like mentoring, internships, scholarships, clothing and things that students can’t get on their own. The Banneker Alumni Society wants to be that bridge.”
A Legacy Birthed Out of a Vision
Banneker Academic High School opened in 1981 with the goal of, as articulated in its charter, setting the standard of public school education in the District and providing a blueprint for other high schools to follow.
The first class of Banneker achievers graduated in 1984.
Throughout its existence, the school has boasted a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Each graduating class has also amassed millions of dollars in scholarships to a bevy of universities across the U.S.
Admission into Banneker requires high grades, teacher recommendations, and the completion of an essay and a series of interviews. Because of the specialized curriculum, no students can enroll as 11th graders, and only a few could do so as 10th graders.
District students have traveled far and near to attend Banneker. They maintain a full course load with advanced placement, honors and International Baccalaureate classes well into their senior year.
Another aspect of the Banneker experience that motivates, and even at times perturbs, students is a grading scale in which 94-88% is a B and 87-77% is a C.
In the realm of community service, Banneker students have to accumulate more than twice the number of community service hours required by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education for their high school diploma. Counselors track students’ community service hours on a quarterly basis to ensure they reach certain milestones on the way to 270 hours. They also assign students to sites that align with their professional endeavors.
For several years, the selective high school program operated in 800 Euclid Street NW, on the campus of what had previously been a middle school. Years before its inception, then-D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Superintendent Dr. Vincent E. Reed advocated for the launch of a college preparatory high school, going as far as stepping down from his role when the school board hesitated to follow through.
Reed’s vision eventually came to fruition, with Cecile Middleton, Mazie Wilson, Robert Steptoe, Linette Adams, Patricia Tucker and Anita Berger each serving as principal. Under their stewardship, Banneker received designation as a Blue Ribbon School at least three times. It has also been certified as an International Baccalaureate school, and has consistently ranked among the top 100 high schools in the U.S.
More recently, Banneker students, teachers and administrators successfully rebuffed efforts to stop the school’s less-than-a-mile move down the street to a new campus.
In 2019, Berger counted among those who flooded the John A. Wilson Building and testified on behalf of her school community, and more importantly a legacy of excellence she said made Banneker more than deserving of a new building.
However, Berger is quick to remind people that the spirit of Banneker is in its community, not the building.
Berger started working at Banneker in 1993 as a physical education teacher. In 2003, she became vice principal. She assumed the top leadership role at the school in 2005 upon Tucker’s transfer to DCPS central office.
In the years since, Berger has maintained her responsibilities as principal while leading an all-boys homeroom.
In total, five Banneker alumni currently serve staff roles at the school. They include D.C. History teacher Reginald Williams (class of 2009) and English teacher James McFadden (class of 2010), both of whom were in Berger’s homeroom during their time as Banneker students.
Looking back at her Banneker journey, Berger gave thanks to Reed for remaining steadfast in his mission to make the school a reality. She also noted that she does her best to maintain fidelity to a formula that has proven to work and even inspire the launch of similar public and public charter schools.
“We continue to be a model for other schools, including nationally,” Berger said. “We know we will make a difference in keeping up with the needs of students by including whole-child social emotional supports coupled with academics. The goal is to continue to maintain the integrity of the program using the evidence of student success.”
Decades of Impact, as Told by Alumni and a Current Student
By 1987, Banneker had garnered a reputation as a top-notch public school and vehicle for higher education matriculation in a Black urban community.
Josette Kelley, a 1987 alumna who went to Banneker after attending Holton Arms School, an all-girls private school in Bethesda, Maryland, said Banneker boosted her confidence as a Black teenager learning among other Black teenagers in a serious, academically rigorous environment.
While studying at Banneker, Kelley volunteered at HU Hospital and participated in the D.C. Summer Youth Employment Program.
“I think about all the stresses that kids had like bullying and worrying about fashion that I didn’t have in the late 1980s,” said Kelley, a program manager. “It was an amazing experience. It felt protective.”
Tiera Savwoir, a 2007 Banneker alumna, said she solidified her circle of friends at Banneker. She attended the 40-year anniversary celebration with her husband and fellow Banneker alumnus, Nick Savwoir (class of 2005), with whom she has a son.
Even with what she described as the lack of social activities found at other high schools, Savwoir credits Banneker with helping her take her talents to the next level and surrounding her with people who can help her in her time of need.
She implored current Banneker students to form similar bonds.
“Banneker students get overlooked when we need support with the things going on in our lives [so] the important thing [for students] is to have the courage to reach out to people in your network to share what issues you may be facing,” said Savwoir, a management and program analyst in the federal government.
“Banneker gave me lifelong friendships that I am forever grateful for and the foundation of a good education that taught me discipline and showed me that I can do anything I put my mind to,” Savwoir added. “If you can survive Banneker, the sky truly is the limit!“
Siera Toney, a 2010 Banneker alumna who works as an educator, singer, writer, and minister in the faith-based, arts education, and business arenas, said Banneker gave her a deep appreciation for an interdisciplinary education.
She told the Informer that the skills developed at 800 Euclid Street NW allowed her to earn scholarship dollars and advocate for herself in college and throughout her adulthood.
“My teachers at Banneker impressed upon me that all of the subjects I studied were integral to my life, not just one set of disciplines,” Toney said. “As an arts, world languages, and worship educator, my experiences in the arts and humanities inform my understanding of the other disciplines like the social sciences and STEAM.”
“At Banneker, it was imperative to get a well-rounded education, one that is both global and local, or ‘glocal,’ Toney added. “Today, my Banneker experience lets me know more about what is needed and what I can offer in education.”
At a time when young people in the District are experiencing unprecedented levels of violence, Jovon Dancy, a rising sophomore at Banneker, looks to his school as an escape from the mayhem.
Jovon, a Shaw resident, said he wants to become the first in his family to attend and graduate from college. His choices include: St. John’s University, University of Pittsburgh, Ohio State University, Princeton University and University of Oregon.
During his freshman year, Jovon developed a love for biology under the auspices of his teacher Mandi Nguyen. He questioned whether he would have the opportunity to do that elsewhere.
“I would be in trouble at another school,” Jovon said. “There’s no drama at Banneker. It’s fun and being here puts you on a good path. You just have to be willing to do the work.”