Within the confines of a nearly century-old building perched on a hill along Georgia Avenue in Northwest, the staff at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School have prepared legions of young people from the across the District for the academic rigor of some of the nation’s most prestigious universities.
Perhaps that’s why those who claim allegiance with “the Banneker family” cannot fathom why, despite being acknowledged as one of D.C.’s best for 40 years, students must still contend with what they describe as an inadequate heating system and infrastructure more reflective of the configurations needed for a middle school.
“Any other school would’ve slowed down but Banneker hasn’t,” Banneker student Margareth Mbea said during her testimony at a recent D.C. Council Committee on Education roundtable.
Her comment counted among the first of many supporting Banneker’s move into shuttered Shaw Junior High School on 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue in Northwest.
Last month’s announcement elicited strong opposition from families in the Shaw community who said D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) and her predecessors had promised them a neighborhood middle school for which they’ve been waiting for over 10 years.
But many students including Margareth believe nearby Cardozo Education Campus and MacFarland Middle School already adequately accommodate youth living in the Shaw community. Even more, they insist that Banneker students, teachers and staff have waited patiently for long-needed upgrades, even as lower-performing high schools have undergone modernizations.
“For you to tell us you don’t need Banneker in your community is wrong,” Margareth added, proposing an outcome she feels would benefit all parties.
“If no one was attending middle school in that area, wouldn’t it make sense to give that space to a high school? Parents should be arguing for the reopening of Garnett-Patterson,” she said.
The Nov. 15 roundtable brought together opposing voices regarding the potential move of Banneker less than two miles down the street. Following the three-year transitional timeframe, enrollment would be increased by 300 seats.
Banneker, an alternative education institution since 1981 and an International Baccalaureate World School since 2001, provides over 400 students a rigorous, highly-structured academic experience geared toward college readiness. In 2017, it gained recognition as a National Blue-Ribbon School.
During the previous academic year, a trio of female Banneker students became finalists in NASA’s high school competition with their design of a filtration system which removes lead from water fountains. The Bowser administration later awarded the team $4,000.
“[Banneker] has been a tremendous blessing in my life and for those who have called Banneker home,” Reginald Williams, a Banneker history teacher and alumnus, told D.C. Council members David Grosso (I-At Large), Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), and Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1) during public comments last week.
He reflected on his unique experience both as a student, and more recently as a teacher, telling council members that the fight to stop Banneker’s proposed relocation highlights the changing demographics of the city and a disregard of the District’s culture and history voiced by more recent, wealthier residents.
“I’ve been impressed by our program and how dedicated our students are,” Williams added. “My students are working in the library and the cafeteria. They sometimes stay until 6 p.m. because they care that much. The students continue to rise to the occasion, representing themselves, their parents and their community.”
Shaw residents who oppose Banneker’s relocation said they don’t want to deny students their desired modernizations. They’ve repeatedly cited a 21st Century School Fund study that said renovations alone could expand Banneker’s capacity to 700 seats.
For Council members Grosso and Allen, this ongoing conflict speaks more to an imperfect school feeder system and what they describe as a lack of community outreach prior to the decision being made to include the Banneker relocation in the FY 2019 budget.
Allen, acting on behalf of his constituents in the Shaw community, said he asked Grosso, chairman of the D.C. Council Committee on Education, to conduct the roundtable.
During the meeting, Grosso briefly explored the possibility of a new middle school opening in the building Banneker currently occupies, located on Euclid Street. Shortly after, he assured the public witnesses that he and his colleagues would mull over the issue in the coming weeks.
But for Bernadine Francis, an administrative officer of 15 years at Banneker and mother of four alumnae, moving what has become her beloved place of work into a larger facility serves as the only logical choice.
“Banneker has become a stellar institution of learning,” she said. “The move to Shaw is vital because our school is housed in what used to be a junior high school. The gym and cafeteria cater to middle school students. With the increasing enrollment, Shaw provides space for expansion. We’re the last high school in DCPS to be renovated. Our students deserve better.”