As the D.C. Council nears the end of a budget process that will determine the likelihood of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School’s relocation to, and expansion on, the campus of the former Shaw Junior High School, Banneker supporters have upped the ante in their support of the multimillion-dollar proposal.
Since converging Friday on the Wilson Building, students have spoken to six council members and staff members of five others as part of an effort to counter a belief that modernization alone would suffice, as expressed in a group of elected officials sent to Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) this month.
For some Banneker students such as RuQuan Brown, relocation to a newly constructed, fully furnished high school campus would meet academic needs more so than renovation to their current dwellings.
“This is about solving both of our problems. [Shaw residents] want a new middle school, and we need a new high school,” said RuQuan, a junior at Banneker.
On Monday, RuQuan counted among 40 students who stormed At-large Council member Anita Bonds’ office and met with Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5). Throughout their exchanges with council members and staff, students maintained their position that Shaw parents who want a neighborhood middle school should consider moving into Banneker’s Euclid Street location.
“[The current building] is not a high school space, but we as Black people make what we have work,” said RuQuan, 17, a member of Banneker’s Student Government Association. “Every other high school has been renovated. Imagine what we could do in an expanded space. We could give them [our] space. Residents don’t want to send their children with elementary and high school students.”
Less than 24 hours later, as RuQuan and his peers watched from an overflow room, the council voted 7-6 against an amendment introduced by Council member David Grosso (I-At large) that would advance Banneker’s modernization without delay and allocate $1.6 million toward a site study and cost analysis for a stand-alone middle school at the Shaw site.
The debate around whether modernization would suffice has raged on since November, when Banneker students and Shaw community members testified before the council’s education committee. Banneker students and teachers pushed back against a 21st Century Fund feasibility study recommending only modernization to its current building, citing prolonged interruption of student instruction and other inconveniences.
The May 1 letter to Bowser in support of solely modernization included signatures from Council members Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3), Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Elissa Silverman (I-At large) and Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8).
After Bowser revealed her intentions to move Banneker less than a mile down the street and expand enrollment by 300 seats late last year, Banneker students, teachers and parents have gone toe to toe with Shaw parents vying for that space.
Supporters of a new Shaw Middle School, a project in limbo since the Fenty administration, said they would at least entertain the compromise of a shared campus, a proposal that the Banneker group has decried on multiple occasions. Opponents of the Banneker move have reportedly questioned whether enthusiasm for the relocation originated in the Banneker community.
Since Banneker’s conversion from a middle school to a college-preparatory high school in 1981, it has garnered a reputation as one of the District’s most academically rigorous high schools.
In a school of less than 500, more than 75 percent of student body population identifies as Black or African American. Every year, 100 percent of students graduate and gain acceptance to college. Over the past five years, Banneker has expanded enrollment by 12 percent.
On Monday, Allen said that he supports a solution that benefits the Banneker and Shaw communities, reiterating that Banneker sorely needs renovations.
In his support for only school modernization, McDuffie told Banneker students that moving and expanding enrollment dilutes the quality of the Banneker brand that he and other native Washingtonians have come to appreciate.
“Part of the magic is the small setting,” McDuffie said during his meeting with students on Monday afternoon. “Moving from less than 500 students to 800 students would fundamentally change what happens.
“The community is close-knit and you’re focused and together,” he said. “Banneker is not Wilson, Eastern, Cardozo or School Without Walls. It’s the top school with students of color. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to expand the school. It’s worth the debate and something I support.”