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Parents and education advocates renewed yearslong calls for a new middle school to serve students in Shaw and surrounding neighborhoods during a D.C. Council public roundtable yesterday.

They said families were pulling their kids out of D.C. Public Schools and enrolling them in charter or private schools because of the perceived lack of quality middle school options in their neighborhood. Their hope is for the city to build the school at the historic Banneker Junior High School site on Euclid Street NW.

It’s been a few years since the D.C. Council held a hearing on the issue, and Council Chairman Phil Mendelson hoped the “long overdue” dialogue would help inform upcoming budget discussions.

In 2019, the Council narrowly approved legislation to move the top-performing, majority Black and Latinx-serving Banneker High School to the site of the former Shaw Middle School. Mayor Muriel Bowser and others framed the debate in terms of gentrification. Banneker High School families had been promised a renovated building for years, and critics condemned prioritizing a new Shaw middle school as valuing the needs of recently arrived, mostly White residents in the gentrified neighborhood over those of people of color.

Still, others question why the nearby Cardozo Education Campus, whose student body is more than 49 percent Black and more than 47 percent Latinx, doesn’t meet the needs of families clamoring for a stand-alone middle school.

[The skepticism] is really centered around this, ‘Okay, well, y’all say you want the school. Are you really going to put your kids in it?’” Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau explained, echoing conversations she has had with parents. She also pointed out that the vast majority of witnesses who testified at yesterday’s roundtable are White, wondering what people of color think about the issue. 

Parents disputed the point yesterday on several grounds. Suki Lucier claimed Black and Latinx families in the neighborhood have shown some of the greatest resistance to sending their kids to Cardozo, rated a one-star school in DCPS’s School Transparency and Reporting system. Adam Taylor, president of the Parent Teacher Organization at Seaton Elementary School, which would feed into a neighborhood middle school, said the Seaton community values diversity, with Black students currently representing about one-third of total enrollment, Latinx students representing one-third, and the other one-third split between Asian and non-Latinx, White students.

In 2008, Shaw Middle School became the poster child of the urban education reform movement under the late principal Brian Betts. The environment under Betts was built on social and academic support for kids from marginalized communities, curriculum flexibility, and a reportedly high sense of purpose from teachers despite lower test scores since Betts took over. Betts was murdered in 2010, and the plummeting enrollment numbers and rising reports of violence after his death still shrouds the shuttered school with an air of unrealized vision. Shaw Middle School closed in 2013 amid low enrollment and a decaying school building.

This sense of unfulfilled promise was at the core of public witnesses’ advocacy yesterday. Before resigning in 2010, former DCPS Chancellor Michelle Rhee had promised families a new middle school dedicated to communities in Shaw and Logan Circle. Now, families, advocates, and councilmembers sympathetic to the cause see the now-vacant former Banneker Junior School site as an opportunity for a middle school to serve future middle-schoolers in the area. 

“I know the question remains if it’s Euclid street … or where we would put that school,” Nadeau said. “But there is no question that we need it. There’s no question that it was promised. And there’s no question that the Council stands behind this effort.”

But D.C. Deputy Mayor for Education Paul Kihn doesn’t see the question that way. Referencing a DCPS middle school feasibility study and community dialogues the District has hosted on the issue since 2020, Kihn testified that “the Center City area of the city continues to be home to a relatively modest number of children.”

In what Mendelson called “throwing … room-temperature water on advocates,” Kihn said the decision to relocate the Cardozo middle grades and establish a stand-alone middle school should be rooted in clear community needs and data. At this point, it’s unclear whether the data supports a stand-alone school, Kihn said.

“The thing we’re trying to prevent is the idea that we will … create and build a new school that would potentially have too low enrollment to sustain any kind of quality programming and in which families would be unhappy,” Kihn said. “That’s the determination we came to a few years ago. We’re currently continuing to revisit that, and we’ll have a new determination to share publicly next week. But that’s the kind of balanced approach we’ve got to take to these questions.”

NOTE: This post has been updated to clarify a quote from Ward 1 Councilmember Brianne Nadeau.