DC Mayor Bowser, the gentrification bogeyman, and Shaw Middle School

June 2, 2019

For multiple decades, DC families — regardless of how long they’ve been in the city, their race or their ethnicity — have shared a common dream: a public education system that allows their children to attend top-quality institutions in their neighborhood, from elementary through high school. That desire helped drive the charter school experiment, spurred mayoral control over the entire public education apparatus and assured support for billions of dollars in city funding to cover teaching, management and facilities costs. The attempts by Mayor Muriel Bowser and others to link gentrification to the critical debate over whether to reopen Shaw Middle School at its former Rhode Island Avenue NW site or instead relocate Banneker Academic High School there ignores residents’ historic and unrealized dreams.


It also raises two important questions: Don’t white parents or newly arrived DC families have the right to demand good schools in their neighborhood? Should the benefits of quality education be expected to accrue only to families of color or native Washingtonians, or residents of certain neighborhoods?


Bowser is becoming almost as expert as the man in the White House at creating bogeymen that divide residents or that misdirect important public policy conversations. Her motivation appears to be winning the game or at least gaining political leverage.


Don’t be misled. The Shaw vs. Banneker conversation isn’t about gentrification. It’s about the future direction of public education in the city. It’s about whether District leaders will stop pontificating about the need for a solid, by-right, neighborhood-based education continuum and start actually delivering on their decades-long pledge, strengthening rather than weakening traditional DC Public Schools.


Last week, seven of the 13 DC Council members voted to reject Bowser’s proposal to relocate Benjamin Banneker Academic High School to the now-unused site of Shaw Middle School (still known as Shaw Junior High School when it vacated the premises). The mayor had tried to sell the move as critical for the continued success of the magnet high school; meanwhile, residents in and around Shaw are clamoring for a stand-alone middle school at that site.


In their vote, council members smartly retained funding for the modernization of Banneker at its current site at Euclid Street and Georgia Avenue NW — where, truth be told, there is more than sufficient space to expand. In other words, their action, if sustained, could produce a win-win for everyone.


Unfortunately, as legislators prepare to take their second vote next week to approve the $15.5 billion fiscal year 2020 budget and spending plan, education advocates have told me one or two of that group of seven may be waffling, taking the gentrification bait.


Banneker deserves better than being ensnared in a bogus argument. It is a top-performing high school with excellent test scores and an enviable graduation rate. Students who want to attend must apply. The school has had a reputation for stellar administrators and teachers who take the business of educating their students seriously. None of that is in jeopardy if modernization occurs at its present site.


In fact, a relocation to Shaw could cause problems, according to experts like Mary Filardo of the 21st Century School Fund. “Banneker families are being sold snake oil,” she told me during a recent interview.


Filardo and her team know more than most about DC schools. They have worked for decades to get the city to develop and implement a proper master facilities plan for DCPS. And they began tracking the modernization and renovation of city schools even before passage of the 2007 education reform act and the school modernization blitz. They know where the needs are and where the waste has been.


“People are going all out for a space that is half the size,” continued Filardo, noting that moving to the Rhode Island Avenue site could eventually handicap future Banneker programs instead of permitting their growth.


The District owns 13.1 acres of land on and around Banneker that could be used in the expansion, though it might require changes to the adjoining recreation facilities. Since 2015, there has been about $63 million in the city’s capital improvement budget to renovate Banneker. However, Bowser, the sudden savior of the academic high school, hasn’t spent the money. “Nobody delayed [modernization] but her,” Filardo said.


Candidly, the city is filled with modernized high schools; several of them are either half-empty or wholly neglected. To innovate rather than agitate, Bowser could have proposed better using those facilities, including possibly merging Banneker with one of them. The mayor also could have sought to extend the relationship forged between Banneker and Howard University, negotiating the high school’s use of the college’s athletic facilities and resources.


Shuttered since 2008, the Shaw Junior High School site on Rhode Island Avenue NW is the subject of competing proposals — an expanded facility for Banneker Academic High School, as proposed by the mayor, and a new Shaw Middle School, backed last week by a slim DC Council majority in an initial vote on the 2020 budget. 


On the other hand, reopening Shaw is part of the solution to the middle school challenge the city and DCPS have faced for more than a decade. DC increased its pre-K program, bringing more children into its elementary schools. Consider that there are more than 1,302 children enrolled in Seaton, Garrison, Thomson and Cleveland elementary schools, all of which would feed into Shaw, according to the 21st Century School Fund.


Contrary to the arguments raised by gentrification baiters, 80 percent of those students are children of color  — 42 percent black, 38 percent Latino, 8 percent Asian and 2 percent mixed race. Further, 39 percent of that population is categorized as at-risk. “You can’t throw stereotypes around and think you know what is happening,” Filardo said of the implication that the push for Shaw Middle School comes from affluent newcomers.


Now, as in the past, when DC elementary school students have completed their course of study, their parents often lack viable, quality options for middle schools in or near their neighborhoods. Consequently, the kids frequently get enrolled in private schools or charter schools. Hoping to stop that outward migration, Capitol Hill parents several years ago invested their time and energy in developing their own middle school improvement plan; parents in Ward 5 followed suit, working with DCPS to open Brookland Middle School; and those in Ward 4 demanded renovation of McFarland and the opening of what’s now know as Ida B. Wells Middle School.


So why are Shaw parents being singled out? Why are they being called gentrifiers and being accused of not wanting Banneker, a predominantly black school, in their community  — as if Shaw Middle School would be predominantly white?


Ibrahim Mumin, an African American civic leader and businessman who has seen the best and worst of Shaw during his 43-year residency there, declared at a recent event at the John A. Wilson Building that he intended to fight to reopen Shaw. That’s the same declaration made by Alex Padro, an advisory neighborhood commissioner who has lived and represented the interests of residents in Shaw for more than 19 years. There are hundreds of others who feel the same way, including myself.


If Mayor Bowser wants a win-win in the Banneker-Shaw debate, one is already on the table. She might stop inciting around gentrification, take the gift the council has provided, and move forward with improving public schools for everyone.


This article was first published on thedcline.org

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