Kojo sits down with three young organizers to talk about climate activism and this week's D.C. Climate Strike.
The building that once housed Shaw Junior High School at the corner of 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue in Northwest D.C. has sat empty for more than a decade.
Last week, the D.C. Council voted to move the top-ranked — and, by all definitions, high-achieving — students of Banneker Senior High School to that site. That high school has been dealing with limited space, a lack of amenities, inadequate heating and cooling systems, and deteriorating infrastructure for years.
But there’s a catch: Shaw residents say that the city had long promised them a new neighborhood middle school on the Rhode Island Ave site — a promise that the D.C. Council says it will keep by renovating the current Banneker building (about a mile away) into a middle school once the high school has been relocated.
But this swap solution isn’t being hailed as a “win-win” by either side. Shaw residents as well as the Banneker school community say they have concerns that the needs of their children will not be met as the plan moves forward.
We’ll hear from both sides and try to figure out exactly how all of this unfolded at last week’s dramatic budget vote at the D.C. Council.
Produced by Monna Kashfi
KOJO NNAMDIThe building that once housed Shaw Junior High School at the corner of 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue Northwest closed because of under-enrollment more than a decade ago. Last week, the DC Council voted to move the high-achieving Banneker Senior High School to that site. Banneker needs more space, amenities and a better facility, but there's a catch: Shaw residents say the city promised them a new middle school on that site, a promise that the DC Council says it will keep by renovating the current Banneker building into a middle school once the high school has been relocated. Or maybe the middle and high schools could both go on the new site.
KOJO NNAMDIJoining me in studio is Jenny Gathright. She a reporter in the WAMU newsroom. Jenny, thank you for joining us.
JENNY GATHRIGHTThanks, Kojo.
NNAMDIHelp us understand the background, here. What was the original dispute over the long-vacant Shaw Junior High School site about?
GATHRIGHTSo, the debate has really centered on one plot of land, at 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue Northwest, in the Shaw neighborhood. It is the site of the old Shaw Junior High School, which closed in 2008. And, last year, Mayor Muriel Bowser announced that she wanted Banneker High School to get a new, modernized campus at 9th Street and Rhode Island Avenue, that location. Supporters of Bowser's plan say the move to Shaw would let the renovation go quicker, and it's been long-promised. And it would also allow Banneker to expand, accept more students.
GATHRIGHTBut a number of families in Shaw had a problem with the move, because they say the city promised their community a neighborhood middle school, and that it would be rebuilt at the site of the old Shaw Junior High. I should say that middle school students in Shaw do have a neighborhood middle school program right now at the campus of Cardozo High School, about a mile away, in Columbia Heights.
NNAMDIStandoff went beyond just the parents in these two camps. It also pitted the mayor, Muriel Bowser, against members of the DC Council, at least for a while. Tell us about that.
GATHRIGHTThere was definitely some disagreement. So, in Council's first budget vote on May 14th, they voted against Bowser's plan. It was a close vote, seven to six. But, at the time, the majority of the Council wanted to renovate Banneker at its current campus, and then leave the Shaw site open for a future middle school.
GATHRIGHTThe councilmembers were also pushing back against the rhetoric the mayor had been using. Bowser wrote a letter to the Council, where she brought up recent protests in Shaw against displacement of black people, and she basically said that if you're concerned about gentrification, you should side with the Banneker students here. Shaw has lost a significant portion of its black population. Its median income has gone way up, as white wealthy families have moved into the neighborhood.
GATHRIGHTBut some councilmembers really objected to that framing. They pointed out that the Shaw elementary feeder schools are still majority black and Latino. And they also didn't want this policy conversation about school planning to become a proxy for that conversation about displacement.
NNAMDIThe Council voted against the plan to move Banneker last month, but that May 14th vote ultimately did not hold. What happened at the final budget session last week?
GATHRIGHTSo, the debate was really heated, and the Council essentially voted to swap the locations at the schools. So, here's what's been passed. Banneker will move to the Rhode Island Avenue campus, and its renovation is fully funded. The city will also study whether it would be possible in the future to locate a Shaw middle school next to the Banneker campus at that location at Rhode Island Avenue. But in the city planning documents, the address of the future Shaw Middle School is now the current Banneker campus, off Euclid Street. So, that sort of completes the swap. But the Shaw Middle School construction hasn't been funded. Only the planning process for one has.
NNAMDIJoining me in studio, also, is Alexander Padro. He is executive director of Shaw Main Street and an ANC commissioner in Shaw for nearly two decades. Alexander Padro, thank you for joining us.
ALEX PADROGood afternoon. Thank you.
NNAMDIAlso with us is Natalie Hopkinson. She is a Banneker High school parent and DC cultural historian. Natalie Hopkinson, good to see you.
NATALIE HOPKINSONGood to see you.
NNAMDIWell, let's start first with who exactly speaks for whom. For whom do you speak today, Natalie?
HOPKINSONSo, I speak for my daughter, who is a student at Banneker, who is one of the hundreds of amazing -- these are some of the brightest kids in the city. They've been flooding City Council for the last several weeks, advocating for themselves. They are a group of kids who are ecstatic about their new move to Shaw. They've got civics lessons. They learned that their voice matters. They learned that they can convince members of the City Council to support them, you know, in their effort to get a big school.
HOPKINSONThey've learned that they are worthy of the same palace that every other DCPS high school has, from Roosevelt -- which I was just at last week, which is incredible. It's beautiful. Dunbar, amazing, Eastern High School. All of these schools are amazing, Anacostia, Ballou, all of them have been renovated. And Banneker, it's long overdue for them to get this. And so the Council finally got it right.
NNAMDIAre you happy with the Council? Why am I asking this? She said the Council finally got it right. I was about to ask, are you happy with the Council's decision? You are, clearly.
HOPKINSONI'm thrilled, yes. I think, you know, that they were sort of trying to pin it as a win-win, initially, when they raided the budget for Banneker's construction. But this actually is a win-win, because they're able to get -- the old site is protected. So, really, we're talking about two schools. We have Cardozo Education Campus, which is home to 160 students, currently, middle school students that are in this feeder pattern, and then you have Banneker, which is, you know, it's a high school that's been operating above capacity for a while.
HOPKINSONAnd so, you know, now both places -- now we've created a new space where even more kids will get served. So -- but not -- Banneker really shouldn't be behind Shaw. Like, they really have been waiting patiently for many years to get the sort of facility that they're about to get.
NNAMDIAlexander Padro, I ask who speaks for whom, because clearly, there is some division in the Shaw community. We got an email from someone who says: I strongly caution the show not to imply that Alex Padro speaks for the majority of the community, advocating on behalf of the Shaw Middle School. He does not speak for the Save Shaw Coalition. For whom do you speak, Alex?
PADROI speak for the 1,500 children that attend the five elementary schools that would feed into the Shaw Middle School. And I also speak for the 1,300 students that are on waitlists for those five schools. We're talking about children that are 40 percent African American, 34 percent Latino, only 14 percent white. These are children who, in many cases, have their parents making decisions to pull them out of their elementary schools when they get to the third and fourth grade, because they don't see a clear feeder pattern that will lead them through middle school into high school in an in-boundary feeder pattern, which was promised to them back in 2014.
NNAMDIWe're going to get to that promise in a second, but, Jenny Gathright, this is precisely what the mayor says they're going to study at this point?
GATHRIGHTYeah. So, what is funded is a planning process, basically, for Shaw Middle School. The deputy mayor for education's office, you know, told me they have already conducted an extensive study of whether the population does support a standalone middle school in Shaw. And they have found, in their research, that it does not. And they say that the capacity of the Cardozo campus is currently at 73 percent. But, yes, they will further study the need for a middle school.
NNAMDIOkay, Alex Padro, back to the history. The Shaw community has a lot of history with this site. Shaw Junior High School was closed in 2008, but residents say that the city promised to reopen it as a neighborhood middle school. How did we get here?
PADROSo, we got here because back in 2015, Mayor Bowser, when she came into office, took the $54 million that the Gray administration had put into the budget for the Shaw Middle School at the old Shaw Junior High School location, and instead transferred it over to a renovation project up in Ward 4, her home ward. And, at the time, we were promised that when the Shaw Middle School project was ready to move forward, that she would put the funds back into the budget.
PADROBack in November of 2017, Mayor Bowser came to ANC 6C, and when asked about what the status of the middle school was, she said that she had her team working on a mixed-use development that would help to pay for the construction of the middle school and additional residential development or commercial development, and that she was charging then-Chancellor Wilson with the engagement and outreach process to begin developing the middle school.
PADROAnd so then, all of a sudden, in October of last year, she changed her mind without consulting the community, without, you know, letting us, you know, have the opportunity to, you know, push back on her decision. And, basically, you know, she's been acting like Queen Muriel I and setting a Game of Thrones up between the Banneker community and the Shaw community, not taking into account the fact that there was no reason why the Council's preferred action in renovating the existing facility for Banneker at Euclid street could not accommodate 21st Century needs.
PADROThere were accusations that the building was historic. It couldn't be torn down. It couldn't be modernized. It couldn't be added to. DCPS doesn't control the adjacent property. You know, all of which were lies, unfortunately, because the reality is that half of the property up in the Banneker Recreation Center actually is under DCPS's control.
PADROAnd, you know, there's -- we always renovate our high schools. This is the first time that DCPS will actually be building a high school at a different location, relocating a high school population from its historic home without any reason and, unfortunately, taking the site that, you know, is needed for an in-boundary middle school for the Shaw neighborhood and the center city neighborhoods.
NNAMDINatalie Hopkinson wants to respond, but before you do, Natalie, councilmembers have said that the swap solution moving Banneker to the former Shaw Junior High site ensures that the Shaw community will get a middle school. And exactly where it's being built is not as important as making the school a reality. And in the letter I read earlier challenging whether or not you represent the Save Shaw Coalition, the individual claims that the Save Shaw Coalition prefers Shaw Middle School at Banneker to co-location because of the size constraints and community needs at the 925 Rhode Island Avenue site. Is that also your position?
PADROYes, I do agree. It's unfortunate that Mayor Gray has been convinced by Mayor Bowser that it's possible or that it's desirable to co-locate the two schools at the 925 Rhode Island Avenue location. The reality is that the sites are not comparable in terms of size. It's 6.8 acres total at the Shaw location, you know, versus 13.1 acres at the Banneker location. Now, we have, you know, some of the most heavily used recreation facilities in the neighborhood, both the skate park, the basketball courts...
NNAMDI(overlapping) So, there's not enough space for two, is what you're saying.
PADROExactly. It would be shoehorning in an additional school and causing the neighborhood to have to sacrifice more than it already sacrificed back in the 1960s when 24 families lost their homes so that we could have a middle school in the neighborhood.
NNAMDISo, both you and the Save Shaw Coalition would prefer Shaw Middle School to be relocated -- or located -- at the Banneker site, rather than have two schools co-located. Natalie, you, then I've got to go to a break.
HOPKINSONAnd that is something that a lot of Banneker families would agree with. Like, it's much better to allow them to have their own middle school site at the Euclid site. But I just wanted to -- just a point of historical clarification on this idea that there's never been a new high school built on a different site. The Shaw Junior High School, the original Shaw Junior High School -- my painter, actually, Tyrone Lee, shout-out to him, is a graduate of Shaw Junior High School. When he went to Shaw, it was at Asbury...
NNAMDI(overlapping) It was at 7th and Rhode Island, right?
HOPKINSONExactly. It's now a senior home, right. So, Shaw has really -- historically, Shaw Middle School has been at three locations. There's the Asbury location, the 9th and Rhode Island location. And the most recent location is at Garnett Patterson on U Street, which is actually available. So, this idea that, you know, saying that the mayor lied, I don't think that it's fair. Like there is nothing sacred about that site that makes the Shaw parents have to have it at that location.
HOPKINSONThey actually could have it at Garnett Patterson. There are other places where they can have a standalone middle school. What I think is really important is that we have an evidence-based conversation when we're making planning decisions. What are the enrollment patterns? What are the numbers? The city has studied the issue already, and there is not enough to support that 550 mark that they need to be able to have a standalone middle school.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I'll have Alex Padro respond to that. First, we've got to take a short break, and there are a bunch of people on the line. I promise we'll try to get to your calls. If the lines are busy, shoot us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking about a new site for Banneker High School and a new site for possibly, likely, Shaw Middle School, with Natalie Hopkinson. She a Banneker High School parent and DC cultural historian. Alexander Padro is executive director of Shaw Main Street and an ANC commissioner in Shaw for nearly two decades now. Jenny Gathright is a reporter in the WAMU newsroom. Alex Padro, we went through this briefly before, and we don't have a great deal of time left, but what is your argument for why you think that the threshold can be met for Shaw Middle School?
PADROBack when I first moved into the neighborhood, Shaw Junior High School had 1,200 students. Through a number of boundary realignments and the advent of charter schools, then, you know, the enrollment began to decline. They then changed it from a junior high school to a middle school, with the result that there were about 400 students left in the school when it was closed in 2008.
PADROIn the meantime, parents in the neighborhood have recommitted to those elementary schools, which were definitely struggling at the time. And now those elementary schools are thriving. Those students would like the opportunity to be able to walk to school, or be walked to school. The Shaw Junior High School site is within a block or two of three of those feeder schools. And the idea that they should have to go a mile or more to be able to go to a middle school, really, is unconscionable.
NNAMDIWell, hopefully a new study will be able to help resolve that. Jenny Gathright, the advocacy for Banneker getting a new site was very much a student-driven effort. And you met some of the kids who were involved. Tell us about that.
GATHRIGHTYeah, I visited an 11th grade English class at Banneker last week, and the students told me that even though, you know, since they're juniors, they're already going to be in college by the time a new school is built. They really want younger students to have better facilities, more space for athletics, and also just more seats, so more kids can have an opportunity to go, because kids from across the city apply to go to school at Banneker.
GATHRIGHTAgain, the mayor has said the new campus would allow the school to accept more students, but I'll just let Rayquan Brown and Pauline Green Williams (sounds like) speak for themselves here.
RAYQUAN BROWNSometimes, we'd bet there from 8:00 to 3:00. We usually took two different groups, a group to verbally advocate and sit down and have conversations with the councilmembers and their teams, and then another group of students that would go in the afternoon and kind of protest with chants, signs and things of that nature.
PAULINE GREEN WILLIAMSOne of the main points we emphasized was that Banneker brings hope to students in all eight wards. If we were able to go to the Shaw site, we would be able to expand 300 more feet. And we already get 800 applicants, as it is. So, we want more people in DC to be able to have the opportunity that we have to be a part of a school that has 100 percent college acceptance rate and gets millions of dollars in scholarships.
GATHRIGHTSo, Rayquan was referring to the fact that Banneker students were down at the Wilson Building talking directly with councilmembers in the lead-up to the vote.
NNAMDIAnd Jonnie in Ward 7 has a comment about that. Jonnie, we don't have a lot of time left, but go ahead, please.
JONNIEThis is Jonnie Rice. Let me say this. I was at that hearing. I support Banneker. I support this move. I support our mayor. I was very disappointed in how the chairman described those kids as running through the building. Those kids were not running through the building. Those kids were lobbying like professionals. They fought for their school. They deserve to have that opportunity. I am a graduate of Eastern High School. I was in the second class of African Americans that went to Eastern High School. We fought for that renovation and got it done.
JONNIEThese kids deserve to have a new school on the old Shaw site. And I don't like the way the chairman treated them. I don't like the manner in which he talked to his colleagues when Councilmember...
JONNIE...Councilmember McDuffy at the roll call count. He acted as if he was a king or some kind of...
NNAMDI(overlapping) We don't have a lot of time left, Jonnie, so I do have to move on, because there are others who do not share your opinion who I would like to get to. Becky, on our guest line. Becky, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BECKYHi, there. I'm the parent of two Cleveland Elementary School students and...
NNAMDIYeah, that was your email I was reading from earlier.
BECKYYes. I really just wanted to say that I'm very happy that the Council has given the Shaw Middle School a home. This will be the first time in ten years that Shaw will have a standalone middle school home. And I am really also glad that we've been given planning money to start that process, so that when the Banneker students move out of their current site on Euclid Street, the middle school students in the Cardozo (unintelligible) can move in.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call. And here is Maggie. Maggie, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAGGIEHi. Hi, Kojo. I have also been working hard over the last several months on the Save Shaw effort. And I think I want to come back to the first question that you posed to the group and to Natalie and Alex about who speaks for whom, and on behalf of who, and the insinuation that somehow the mayor alone singlehandedly convinced Councilmember Gray to change his opinion. It was clear from the hearing that it wasn't necessarily just the mayor speaking with the councilmember, who changed...
NNAMDI(overlapping) I think the councilmember himself said that it was partially the responsibility of the students from Banneker that he spoke to that helped to change his mind.
MAGGIEI can't disagree that that has to be part of it, but what I also saw happen there at the hearing was the councilmember turned to Alex himself, who is on your show today, and say that he told me that this is what the parents wanted in reference to co-location. And...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, allow me to have Alex respond, because I don't have a lot of time.
PADRONo, that's not true. I very clearly told Mayor Gray in the days prior to the Council hearing that the preference of the parents was to be relocated and not to have the two schools co-located on the site, because of the impact on the neighborhood, and the fact that there just would be too much dense development on that site. So, no.
NNAMDIBut Natalie and her fellow parent organizers have voiced concern about Banneker students being welcome in their new location. Will Banneker students be welcome in Shaw?
PADROI think that the students will be fine. I'm more concerned about the teachers, to be perfectly honest with you. If we were going to have, you know, hundreds of additional teachers trying to find parking in a neighborhood that is very densely parked as it is, and on the street-cleaning days, it's almost impossible for people to be able to find places to park their cars, I'm actually more concerned about how welcome the teachers will be than the students.
NNAMDIJenny, now that there seems to be a plan for moving forward, how does the school community feel about it? How are they reacting to all of the political fallout surrounding the council vote and the debate that led up to it?
GATHRIGHTI spoke with Clair Burkey. She's an English teacher at Banneker, and she told me that the political fallout really did come up in conversation, but they tried to keep the conversation focused on what students needed and why a new building was important to them. So, here she is, explaining that.
CLAIR BURKEYOur focus really was just on what Banneker students need. And as you can experience right now, in this room, it's about 100 degrees, and our air conditioning is so loud, it's distracting. And so we are in need of a new building, and we really didn't want to keep waiting and waiting and waiting. And so we really tried to focus our conversations around those facts. You know, we're not trying to be political. We're just trying to advocate for our needs.
NNAMDIGo to deal with the elephant in the room. Natalie and Alex, I'd like you both to weigh in on the next question in the two minutes we have left. Jenny mentioned in her reporting that the mayor has been criticized for trying to cast this debate as part of the gentrification struggle in the District. Is there an aspect of this that's about gentrification?
PADROAbsolutely not. And the reality is that while in some areas of Shaw, we've had displacement, in the area that I represent, we've had very little displacement. We've worked very hard to preserve the affordable housing that we've had in the neighborhood. We've added new affordable housing, most of which has been occupied by low and moderate-income families of color. So, I can't speak to what happens on U Street, but along 7th and 9th Streets, I can assure you that we have not had the kind of displacement that the mayor's talking about.
HOPKINSONI 100 percent disagree. What else are we talking about in Shaw, except for gentrification? Gentrification isn't just about at-risk numbers. It's about an attitude. It's about feelings of entitlement by newcomers. So, the way that -- in the years that I've been in DC, when you come into a neighborhood and you're assigned a school and you might not want it, or maybe you see things that are lacking about it, you roll your sleeve up and you get to work on it.
HOPKINSONAnd what I don't see from the coalition in Shaw is really any engagement with the Cardozo Education Campus. Like, they're just pretending like it does not exist. There is a school that exists there. There are about 160 middle school students that are there. Most of them, majority of them are Latino. The rest, a little bit less than half, are African American. And the fact that they are not being centered in whatever plans that go forward, says everything about gentrification.
NNAMDIWhat's the timeline for Banneker's move to the Shaw location?
PADROThe construction is about to start. There is work that is ongoing. Currently, the Olde City Farm Garden Center that was located on the site has already moved out. And the school is supposed to be moving in in 2021. And thereafter -- hopefully, unless someone changes the plans on the part of the Council -- then renovations would happen at the Banneker (unintelligible).
NNAMDI(overlapping) I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Alex Padro, Natalie Hopkinson, Jenny Gathright, thank you all for joining us. Our conversation about Banneker High School's move to Shaw was produced by Monna Kashfi. And our show about how jurisdictions in Maryland and Virginia are dealing with the scooter trend was produced by Cydney Grannan.
NNAMDITomorrow's show, June is pride month. We're checking in on the state of housing for LGBTQ people in the Washington region, where the affordable housing crisis is hitting some community members particularly hard. And the Virginia primaries are only a week away, so we'll explore the complicated and controversial ways newspaper editorial boards make political endorsement. That all starts tomorrow at noon. Until then, thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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