Ronald Thompson Jr. is an activist in Ward 8.
I come from a line of strong, black, Washington women who fought for high-quality education. My grandmother attended segregated schools as a child. She was a week from turning 9 when the Supreme Court decided Bolling v. Sharpe, breaking the color line in our public schools. Years later, she fought for my mother to have access to a reading enrichment program at Washington Highlands Elementary School. That program set the building blocks for my mom’s success later in life. My mother was the first in her family to graduate high school (Ballou Senior High School) and the first to attend college, and she did it while pregnant with my eldest brother. They were fighters. They didn’t let politics stop them from ensuring their children got a high-quality education, no matter where they went to school. They taught me how to fight for what is right. And, as the child and grandchild of these strong, black, Washington women, I feel compelled to speak out against Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) effort to dishonor their legacy.
The toxic debate over what should happen with Benjamin Banneker Academic High School and the former Shaw Junior High School site is the mayor’s doing. After securing her reelection, she decided to move Banneker onto the proposed Shaw Junior High School site, upending years of planning around Banneker’s modernization and denying the opening of a stand-alone middle school at Shaw. She accuses the D.C. Council of being an engine of displacement-by-gentrification and claims that voting against this was an attack on the predominantly African American student body at Banneker. This comes amid a litany of budget failures, including a partially blocked effort to gut funding to schools east of the Anacostia River.
Under Mayor Adrian Fenty (D), the question of how public schools should be run was more about politics than about educating students. I was in elementary school on Capitol Hill at the time and skirted much of the damage done by then-Chancellor Michelle Rhee. In seventh grade, though, I saw first-hand what happens when politics become more important than educating our children. Kramer Middle School had been stripped to the bones. It was a school that was mostly empty, and its paltry enrollment numbers meant that it received less in real dollars than the Capitol Hill Cluster Schools I had come from. We lacked textbooks in core subjects such as math and English, and sometimes we lacked teachers. Computers were in limited supply, and those that we had were unreliable.
I was among a group of smart kids. Our parents wanted to see us do well. We had a few good teachers who worked every day to give us the best possible education with the measly resources they were given. We had aspirations, but we had been shortchanged by politicians. The Fenty-Rhee administration told schools such as Kramer to do less with more, yet opened schools that drew students from vulnerable schools -- just as Bowser is doing today. Shaw Junior High School was a casualty of this maneuvering a decade ago. Consolidated with Garnett-Patterson in 2008, Shaw flourished for a time. But Rhee starved the historic institution instead of making needed investments. Shaw was among a dozen schools closed in 2013. Bowser has opened two magnet high schools and proposes expanding Banneker to 800 students. Simultaneously, she proposed deep cuts to high schools such as Anacostia and Ballou, as they face declining student populations.
We were bamboozled when Fenty and Rhee promised improvement. We got instead years of austerity at schools that needed more support, not less. Teachers, parents, community members and students organized around equity in our public schools. We worked with then-Mayor Vincent C. Gray and then-Chancellor Kaya Henderson and claimed a few victories that increased support for our schools. We believed we had reasserted the role of people power in our public schools.
Now we find ourselves with a mayor who pursues tribal politics rather than an agenda of real improvement.
The mayor, using the fraught relationship between race and class, says moving and expanding Banneker is about resisting gentrification. But those 300 additional seats at Banneker would negatively affect enrollment at other high schools, according to the deputy mayor for education, potentially leading them to close.
We should fully modernize Benjamin Banneker Academic High School on Euclid Street and reopen Shaw Middle School at its historic home at 925 Rhode Island Ave. NW. Both projects are long overdue.
We won this game before, and we can win it again.