By Carl Thomas, Special to the AFRO
That was the vote total when the D.C. Council met to decide the future location of Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. The Council chambers were filled with hundreds of students from the city’s highest performing high school, organized under a sole purpose — to lobby the Council of D.C. to honor a promise made several times for a new Banneker building.
District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser’s FY-2020 budget cleared the way for a new Banneker to be built in the Shaw neighborhood. Shaw residents seem wholly against the move of the nationally-ranked, high-performing school, which has occupied the shrunken shell of the old Banneker Middle School since 1981, when it was converted to a magnet high school.
The disagreement stems from any number of factors, depending on who is asked. The Council’s divide rooted in concern after a promise for offering Shaw residents a middle school, which would now be the site of the new Banneker.
Mayor Bowser declared, in a letter written to the Council of D.C., “After weeks of protests in Shaw against gentrification and displacement, I am shocked that seven Council members have signed onto a letter telling the students, families, and staff at Benjamin Banneker High School — which was once again ranked by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best high schools in the nation — they need to stay put in their current location.”
Shaw ANC Commissioner Alex Padro fired back on the subject, “For anyone to say that this is a gentrification issue is totally unconscionable and is not supported by facts.”
The students have yet a third perspective; One that is not yet wilted with the tinge of political correctness. The brightest of the District’s scholars have produced incredibly consistent messaging about the undeniable need for a new, larger facility- without regard for the perspective driven opinions of their adult lawmakers. The students simply want the facility promised to them several budget cycles ago.
Students learned valuable lessons throughout the process as ninth grader Chloe Smith explained, “Advocating isn’t always about being correct or agreeing. It is about getting your point across, in a respectful manner! As our Vice Principal Ms. McDuffie tells us, Disagree does not mean disrespect.’ We’ve stood by that statement, and my peers and I were very adamant about getting what we deserved.”
The net result:
For many of the students participating in the protests it seemed more of a labor of love than a selfish desire.
Tenth grader, Imani Thomas explained, “If the city were to break ground as early as this summer, the new Banneker would open just in time for my sister’s senior year. I’m here for her to have a better school environment than I have.”
Senior Zende James echoed the sentiment, “Even though I will not be a beneficiary of the new building, I know the importance of renovating Banneker. I understood that this renovation was not just needed for the success of students but the success of future students. As I advocated for this building, I did not see myself, but those who will come after me, so I can ensure that they will receive a better education than I.”
As you listen to the students of Benjamin Banneker, you begin to hear a story of young people struggling through antiquated hallways (complete with roaches and small rodents) to boast a 100 percent graduation rate and a senior class, which garnered more than $35 million in scholarships.
This year, U.S. News ranked Benjamin Banneker Academic High School as the No.1 high school in the District and the 178th high school in the United States. Banneker also ranks No.1 in the nation in math and reading proficiency.
Many Shaw residents scoff at the idea that the arguments against the Banneker move have racial undertones. Currently, Banneker students are 99 percent minorities. The Shaw neighborhood, which once had a high concentration of minority’s, now enjoys the boom of development and the loss of affordable housing options for residents in place.
Many say the gentrifiers simply do not want minority students in their neighborhood or they worry their children won’t be able to gain admittance. If one wanted to avoid race, the results of the vote in favor of moving Banneker to Shaw made it virtually impossible. All seven African American Council members voted to move Banneker to Shaw.
In a letter addressed to the Council of D.C., penned by Banneker parents said the debate was in part about whether the D.C. Council would be prioritizing new Shaw residents, who tend to be wealthy and White, over the existing Banneker families, who are mostly Black and come from all eight wards of the city.
The Council narrowly sided with the students of DCPS…for now.-6.
This was reported with the investigative research of Iesha Thomas (Banneker Student).