Build Banneker in Shaw as a Living Monument to Black Excellence

Benjamin Banneker.

May 10, 2019

From: John Settles Jr., Natalie Hopkinson, and Lee Granados

Parents, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School

To: Members of the Washington, D.C. City Council

Re: Build Banneker — A Monument to Black Excellence

Dear D.C. Council Members,

We respectfully ask that you to vote Tuesday to fund Mayor Muriel Bowser’s plan to build Benjamin Banneker Academic High School at the site of the long-vacant Shaw Middle School.

As DC residents, we share the concerns raised by our neighbors in Shaw about the history of carnage against our schools of right throughout this city. Like them, we have long been advocates of public education, and we fiercely defend not just the neighborhood system in Shaw, but all parts of the city East of Rock Creek Park that have been devastated by budget cuts, school closures and privatization in recent years.

However, we fear that the opposition against the new Banneker plan is yet another example of how addressing these citywide education issues in a whack-a-mole, piecemeal fashion simply continues the pattern of politicizing these decisions at the expense of the least powerful Washingtonians.

Let us be clear: building a new state-of-the-art Banneker, named for a pioneering black scientist who helped design our city, in a high-profile corridor in the heart of Shaw, would be a living monument to black excellence. Each day Banneker High School defies the lies told about the potential and abilities of black and brown children in our city. U.S. News & World Report recently named Banneker as the top-performing high school in the city. A third of our students come from Wards 7 and 8. More than 80 percent are black and come from working-class families. Building the school across the street from a statue of the Father of Black History Carter G. Woodson would be a powerful symbol of the city’s commitment to black excellence, despite all the false reports of its death in DC.

Each morning, Banneker children wake up early, sometimes catching multiple buses to get to school each day. You will never come across a more hard-working group of young people. Many of our parents hold multiple jobs and make enormous sacrifices to prepare our children to qualify for admission to Banneker, and send them to school each day. Our families lack the free time and resources to mount the kind of aggressive lobbying campaign that we have seen from the Shaw community. We don’t have slick Facebook pages, or lawn signs. We don’t have the juice to command meetings with top officials like you. We don’t have PowerPoints filled with enrollment projections, just nearly four decades of excellence.

We fear the opposition to the plan to build a new Banneker continues a troubling pattern in our city. Since the first waves of white flight occurred after court-ordered integration, our city’s education policy has been geared toward trying to attract families who have left, as opposed to serving the children we have. This was what the privatization schemes initiated in the mid-1990s were supposed to do. More recently, DCPS continued this pattern at Eastern High School, a treasured community institution which education leaders emptied and then reopened in 2011 in an attempt to attract wealthy Capitol Hill families. Those families made other choices.

It also should be said, due to some of the most aggressive gentrification in the country, dwindling numbers of black families are able to afford to live in Shaw, a once majority-black community named for a Civil War hero. Critics of the Banneker plan are asking you to bank on the notion that new Shaw families might come back to the neighborhood system, as opposed to investing in Banneker families who have proven their commitment and are enrolled now.

We support proposals to rebuild Shaw Middle School at another location once the school system has concretized its enrollment. But more important, we hope this debate prompts the Council to demand better citywide planning, and reconsider school reform schemes that have surgically targeted historically black neighborhoods in DC such as Shaw and continue to devastate Wards 7 and 8.

With the DC Council’s vote on Tuesday, our city has an opportunity to do something very important in our history: to invest in a state-of-the-art space that can advance inclusion in technology and sustainability. This monument would be open to any and all Washingtonians, including our neighbors in Shaw. In this prominent location, the new Banneker can be a beacon for academic excellence for generations to come.

John Settles Jr., is the president of Banneker Parent-Teacher Organization.

Natalie Hopkinson, Ph.D., is a DC cultural scholar and the parent of a Banneker 9th grader.

Lee Granados is the parent of a Banneker 9th grader and a national consultant for the Center for Applied Linguistics.

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