Bowser Proposal Threatens Shaw’s Future

Opinion

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The Shaw Junior High School Marching Band, pictured in 2007, was the pride of the neighborhood. Photo by Alexander M. Padro

On Friday afternoon, Oct. 26, Mayor Bowser announced her administration’s intention to build a new Banneker High School on the site of the closed Shaw Junior High School at 925 Rhode Island Ave. NW. This represents the most significant threat to the future of the Shaw neighborhood since the 1968 riots.

Shaw Junior High School gave the neighborhood its name in 1966, when the school’s attendance boundaries were used to define an urban renewal area. The school had been located in a Romanesque-revival-style building at the southeast corner of Seventh Street and Rhode Island Avenue since 1928, when it was part of the city’s segregated black school system. The school moved to a new building two blocks west in 1979.

For generations, Shaw Junior High School was a center of community life: the large auditorium hosted a wide range of community events, and the school’s marching band was invited to perform at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival Parade, as well as events as far away as Canada. Students citywide competed for the opportunity to attend the school out of boundary, due to its celebrated music program (band director Wesley Hoover won the Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation Award in 2003). Longtime principal Dr. Percy L. Ellis, Jr. gained national media attention for the way he ran the school. Shaw JHS was a source of great pride for the community and the city.

The old Shaw Junior High School building closed in 2008 when DC Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Michelle Rhee consolidated Shaw and Garnet Patterson Middle School at Garnet-Patterson at 10th and V streets NW. The community convinced Rhee and then Mayor Adrian Fenty to construct a new building for the combined student bodies at the Shaw site, as Shaw offered recreation space, which Garnet Patterson did not.

During the administration of Mayor Vincent Gray, $54 million was budgeted for the construction of the new school. In 2014, the DCPS Boundary Realignment Plan identified a Center City Middle School as the receiving school for students from Cleveland, Garrison, Ross, Seaton, and Thomson elementary schools, with the Shaw site as the ideal location.

In the years since, students who should have been attending the new middle school have been forced to travel a mile or more to the Cardozo or Francis-Stevens education campuses, farther than their parents have felt comfortable. The lack of an in-boundary, walk-to public middle school option has forced many parents to move their children to charter and private schools, or leave the neighborhood or the District, reducing the number of students from the neighborhood in this age group at the more distant schools.

In 2015, the DC Council’s Committee on Education included a provision in DCPS’ budget for a study of the middle school needs of the students in the feeder patterns intended to be served by the new middle school in Shaw. DCPS repeatedly refused to do so, claiming a lack of demand based on enrollment. But when Shaw Junior High School closed, it had 450 students attending, after a boundary realignment reduced that number from over 700. And all the elementary schools that would feed it have a growing enrollment.

In the Cleveland, Seaton, Thomson, Ross, and Garrison boundaries, there are currently 526 kids enrolled in grades six, seven and eight. In 2022, this total is projected to be 584, but that number would likely increase if there were a new middle school serving those neighborhoods on the Shaw site. Why not more, considering the neighborhood has experienced a baby boom in recent years?

Sadly, families are moving out of the neighborhood because, without a middle school, the feeder pattern is broken.

In November 2017, when questioned about the status of the new middle school at an Advisory Neighborhood Commission 6E meeting, Mayor Bowser responded that she was looking for a public-private partnership that would build a mixed-use project at the Shaw site, with the developer paying for the construction of the new school.

But this spring, Ward 6 Councilmember Charles Allen and neighborhood leaders were advised that DCPS had for some time been exploring a variety of options for the future of Banneker High School, an application-based academic school housed in a historic building on Euclid Street NW. Until that time, not even Ward 1 community stakeholders had been engaged in that process, which included hiring architects to prepare feasibility studies. Among the options being considered were several that would occupy part of the old Shaw Junior High School site. Shaw leaders reminded DCPS of the past unfulfilled promises to build a new middle school at the Shaw site, and requested that if a new Banneker were to be built there, that a middle school be included in the development of an education campus.

DCPS, in its traditionally opaque process, refused to consider any options that would include a new middle school on the Shaw site, leaving the Shaw community with no viable options for a future middle school, despite a decade of assurances from three mayoral administrations. DCPS even refused to explore building an addition to Banneker’s historic home using adjacent tennis courts, which would have allowed for all-weather use of the courts, as well as provide additional space to expand the school’s enrollment.

The impact on Shaw and adjacent neighborhoods goes beyond just the length of the walk to a more distant middle school. Neighborhood schools are an important part of a community’s identity. If DCPS is allowed to move forward with its plans unchallenged, Shaw and adjacent neighborhoods will become second-class neighborhoods, by virtue of having strong public elementary schools but no viable public middle school options. Parents and neighborhood residents will be frustrated by DCPS’ unwillingness to take their concerns and input into consideration. Instead of being able to help develop their neighborhood middle school, parents will be forced to continue to shuttle their middle-school-aged children to distant schools rather than being able to have them walk a few blocks to a neighborhood in-boundary, matter-of-right school, like students in other major District neighborhoods. And Banneker will lose its storied traditions in the move from its cherished halls to a soulless modern replacement.

A decade and a half ago, DCPS schools in and around Shaw were in such poor condition that families would move to the suburbs shortly after children were born, in order to ensure the availability of high-quality schools paid by their tax dollars. Some families stayed and fought for the reforms and renovations that have resulted in today’s vastly improved neighborhood elementary schools. If DCPS is allowed to steal our neighborhood’s middle school future, Shaw and adjacent neighborhoods will be diminished forever.

 

Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner Alexander M. Padro has represented central Shaw for the past 18 years.