Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Despite an intense lobbying effort by students and teachers from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, the Council is poised to vote against Mayor Muriel Bowser’s proposal to build a new building for Banneker on the site that used be Shaw Junior High School.

The fight over the old Shaw Junior High site is intense. On the one side, Banneker families and teachers want a new, expanded facility for their high-performing, majority-black and Latino school. On the other side, Shaw residents want to see that same site rebuilt and reopened as a middle school so that their children can attend a neighborhood school.

The land that both sides want, at 10th Street and Rhode Island Avenue NW, has its own history. The now-vacant Shaw Junior High was, for decades, an extraordinary black school in the heart of Chocolate City. Its longtime principal, Dr. Percy Ellis, was able to keep drugs and violence out so that his students had the chance to flourish. Its marching band was locally famous and nationally known.

The debate over the Shaw school site is the latest battle in the war for the cultural soul of the Shaw community that pits a proud African American middle class against new white residents who have moved into the community in the last decade, and social media is filled with racially charged views on the issue.

In recent weeks, the corridors of the Wilson building have become a civics lab as students and teachers from Banneker visited members of the Council, a majority of whom are planning to vote Tuesday against the Mayor’s plan to move Banneker from its 800 Euclid St. NW location to the Shaw site, which would include the building of a new and expanded campus for Banneker. This clears the way for Shaw residents to instead get a new middle school at the old Shaw Junior High site, which has stood vacant for a decade.

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On May 1, Ward 2 Councilmember Jack Evans tweeted a copy of a letter to the Mayor that he and six other councilmembers signed to kill the Mayor’s proposal. The letter urged Bowser to modernized Banneker at its current location at 800 Euclid St. NW and to rebuild Shaw as a middle school at its current location. The lawmakers included Charles Allen (Ward 6), Brianne Nadeau (Ward 1), Elissa Silverman (At-Large), Mary Cheh (Ward 3), Trayon White (Ward 8), and Vince Gray (Ward 7).

On May 2, the Council’s Committee on Education held a mark up of the 2020 schools budget, and Allen introduced an amendment to the school budget funding bill that would have stopped the construction of Banneker at the Shaw site. Allen said that money had already been allocated to modernize Banneker at its current location, and that Bowser, “by changing the address,” of Banneker to the Shaw site, made a move that pitted one community against another.

Allen said that the Council could craft a “win-win” proposal that includes the possibility that Banneker and Shaw could both be located at the Rhode Island Avenue NW site, where the vacant Shaw Junior High stands now.

Councilmember Trayon White said, “I do support Banneker, but if we don’t move the school to Rhode Island we can build a facility on the current site.” And councilmember Anita Bonds, who lives in the Shaw community, said her neighborhood has changed a lot since she first moved there. “I see moms with baby carriages and strollers.”

Bonds says that while she doesn’t want to delay Banneker’s modernization, she too wants to explore all options.

Committee Chair David Grosso opposed Allen’s amendment, which ultimately failed 3-2. “The Shaw community has had broken promises for years. If this project goes forward it will [mean] the demolition of Shaw Middle School,” Allen told Grosso.

While councilmembers insist that both parties could be winners in this fight, Banneker advocates point out that the amount of money allotted to modernize Banneker at the Euclid Street NW site has been decreased from $132 million to $88 million. During the May 2 hearing, Grosso pointed out that this was one of the reasons why the Shaw site was more attractive to Bowser’s camp. He discussed the possibility of additional costs and regulations associated with renovating the historic Banneker building on Euclid. 

Since then, both sides have continued fortifying their positions.

Bowser sent a blistering letter to the Council on May 10: “After weeks of protests in Shaw against gentrification and displacement, I’m shocked that seven councilmembers have signed onto a letter telling students, families, and staff at Banneker High School … that they need to stay put at their current location,” the letter read.

Early Monday, a group of students from Banneker met with Councilmember Trayon White to urge him to support the Mayor’s plans. They rallied outside the Mayor’s office, and Bowser told them, “I am going to do all that I can do to work with members of the Council so that they will agree not to pause the construction of your school again.”

“We can’t wait any longer, we need a new high school building now,” said Banneker Junior Toi Francis, who was one of the students who paid a visit to the offices of Councilmember Trayon White.

Pauline Green Williams, 16, a Banneker junior who is on the swim team, says, “At Banneker, academics is what we do, but we need facilities. I am on the swim team and we don’t have a pool. We don’t have a gym. We have really talented students, but from an academic perspective we don’t have enough.”

According to John Settles, President of the Banneker Parent Teacher Organization, “Any delay in the construction of a new Banneker is a denial.”

Natalie Hopkinson, a professor at Howard University who has a 9th grader at Banneker, says White and Gray, “should be ashamed of themselves for supporting Allen’s plans” because many of the students at Banneker come from Wards 7 and 8.

But many of the parents with small children who live in the Shaw community oppose the city’s plan. They, along with Advisory Neighborhood Commissioners in the area, support the building of a new middle school building at the old Shaw Junior High School site.

Alex Padro, Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner for 6E01, says, “Mayor Bowser told us in 2017 that she had mixed use development plans for the Shaw site that included a new middle school. The Euclid site had been fully funded for modernization. “

“In our community, the middle school children are scattered to the four winds,” he says. “Race is a smoke screen in this issue. Why doesn’t the Mayor want to modernize the Euclid site? This is a Game of Thrones in which Queen Muriel has pitted House Banneker against House Shaw.”

On Monday, Council Chair Phil Mendelson announced that he would support the plan to modernize Banneker at its current location and build a middle school at the Shaw Junior High site.

The vote is set for today.

This post has been updated with additional information on the renovation budget for Banneker.