Two groups of DC school parents are at loggerheads. In the heart of Shaw is a large, vacant building that once housed a junior high school. One group wants the school rebuilt and reopened as a neighborhood middle school, while others want to move Benjamin Banneker High School to the area. Residents don't want to lose adjacent park spaces. Can all of them get what they want?
Between the Shaw site and Seaton Elementary across the road, there seems to be enough space. But maximizing its use would require planning and a commitment to build higher.
Along Rhode Island Avenue NW between 9th and 10th and two blocks from the Shaw Metro station is the shuttered former Shaw Junior High School. Last October, Mayor Bowser announced a plan to move Benjamin Banneker High School, a city wide selective school, to the Shaw site. Neighborhood activists are opposing the move, demanding that the city build a new Shaw Middle School instead.
Officials at DC Public Schools (DCPS) and the Deputy Mayor for Education (DME) office say they haven't ruled out the possibility that the site could house both Banneker and a new middle school, though that's not currently their plan.
After learning a lot about this issue, it seems DC should explore this option before it's too late. A middle school for these neighborhoods would be valuable, and its Metro-adjacent location would well serve both neighbors and potential students from other parts of DC. In an urban neighborhood, we can build schools taller and make maximum use of our land; it's worth taking a serious look at how to do that.
How we got here
The Shaw Junior High School building was built in 1977 to house an acclaimed program that had been an all-black school during segregation and continued to educate primarily black youth whose families made up most of the population of the greater Shaw area.
The aging building closed and the school moved to “Shaw at Garnet-Patterson,” at 10th and U NW, in 2008, but following the 2010 murder of its popular principal, Brian Betts, the school suffered from low enrollment and became part of a wave of DCPS closures in 2013.
These closures happened amid a trend of declining enrollment in DCPS in general, including in the center city area. The initial list included Francis-Stevens, a combined elementary and middle school at 24th and N NW in the West End, and Garrison Elementary, at 13th and S NW in Logan Circle, though neighborhood activism saved those two schools.
Today, Francis-Stevens is highly sought-after. Garrison, fresh off a renovation and with a new principal, is filling its classes with more in-boundary students each year. In last year's lottery, Francis-Stevens only offered five seats across all grades other than PK-3 and the PK-3 waitlist numbered 222; Garrison's PK-3 had a waitlist of 61.
These schools slated just six years ago for closure now have people clamoring to get in. Demand is also strong at other nearby elementary schools Cleveland (at 8th and T NW), Seaton (across Rhode Island Avenue from the former Shaw school), Thomson (12th and L), and Ross (17th and R).
This map by the 21st Century School Fund, which has been advocating for keeping Banneker where it is and re-opening Shaw, shows the schools in the area:
It's worth noting that this shift has happened amid a wave of demographic changes in the Logan and Shaw neighborhoods which saw a major influx of wealthier and whiter residents during this time, so this shift is likely mostly due to changes in the incoming population, along with some notable good work by school principals and staff.
Where do these students go for middle school now?
When DC redrew school boundaries in 2014, the plan was for Cleveland, Garrison, Ross, Seaton, and Thomson to feed a new, to-be-created middle school, which was expected to go on the Shaw site. In the interim, Ross and Thomson feed into Francis-Stevens for middle school while Cleveland, Garrison, and Seaton students go to Cardozo Education Campus, a combined middle and high school.
The Thomson / Ross / Francis-Stevens side of the feeder pattern is winning over parents. Enrollment at Francis-Stevens, which serves grades PK through 8, is growing, and test scores are improving. End each year more Ross and Thomson families are taking up the feed to Francis-Stevens for the middle school years. A modernization, scheduled for 2023/24 provides the opportunity to expand Francis-Stevens further.
The elementary and middle schools from Adams Morgan, Lanier Heights, and Columbia Heights (Marie Reed, HD Cooke, and Tubman) also go to Cardozo, but only for high school; first, they go to middle school at Columbia Heights Education Campus (CHEC). Only Cleveland, Garrison, and Seaton go to Cardozo for middle school as well.
The Cardozo feeder pattern is proving more challenging. Cardozo is a grade 6-12 campus in a newly modernized 394,000 sq ft building, but Cardozo serves a student population that is largely “at risk” and its results on standardized tests are significantly below the citywide average. Last year only 12% of feeder elementary school students went on to middle school at Cardozo, the lowest rate in the city.
Parents at the Dupont, Logan, and Shaw area schools say they just don't see Cardozo as an option, meaning they leave the DCPS system unless they can be lucky enough to lottery into some better feeder pattern. The staff of Cardozo also say that having a middle school in the same building is problematic, including because you have 12- and 13-year-olds sharing facilities with students who are adults, in some cases well beyond 18 years of age.
Why not build a new middle school? What would go there instead?
DCPS backed off its plans to build a new middle school, saying the potential enrollment from feeder schools was not high enough. Cardozo, meanwhile, has more than enough space. Parents and community leaders from the affected elementary schools, however, have been rallying to “save Shaw Middle School.”
Next door there are a skate park, basketball courts, and a dog park that has been a symbol of the neighborhood's demographic changes. Neighbors want to avoid having new schools affect space available for these amenities, which serve Shaw's very diverse population.
Mayor Muriel Bowser instead has promised to move Banneker High School from its site on Euclid Street NW. Banneker is the city's leading International Baccalaureate magnet high school, and DCPS plans to expand Banneker to hold 800 students instead of 480 in 2018. DC rejected options to expand Banneker on its existing site, where there is adjacent park and recreation space. This presentation gives background on DCPS's rationale.
Banneker is particularly known for providing a top-quality education to a predominantly black student body. Writing in the Washington City Paper, Shaw alum Ateya Ball-Lacy wrote,
My daughter Nia recently handed me a piece of paper from her school announcing a feasibility study to determine if my beloved Shaw Junior High would be the new home for her school, Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. My heart smiled at the idea of my daughter, along with hundreds of brilliant, high achieving black students, once again gracing the halls of Shaw. With its extraordinary reputation for high academic performance, the idea of Banneker High School occupying a space that serves as a pillar for excellence in our city is genius. I can’t think of a better way to honor Shaw’s legacy.
This situation has unfortunately pitted Banneker's citywide constituency, which wants a strong and growing Banneker, against Shaw neighbors who were promised, and want to maintain, a neighborhood feeder pattern that will attract students from the area elementary schools.
Banneker aside, should the area have a middle school?
According to DCPS data, if the DCPS average proportion of fifth graders go on to a new middle school from the potential Shaw feeders (including Ross and Thomson), a new middle school here would have 76 sixth graders Higher or lower rates could yield a 6th grade of about 65-128.
However, many of these schools have smaller fifth grades than kindergartens, and if the schools continue to perform strongly and there's a desirable middle school, the classes could be fuller.
It's easy to see how DCPS could look at these numbers and conclude there isn't demand. On the other hand, you can easily read them to say there is, as well.
To hit the citywide median middle school 6th grade size of 112, from the kindergarten numbers today, the new school would have to capture 55% of this year's kindergarteners in the feeder schools, just a bit above the DCPS average. Plus, as population density in DC’s urban core increases it's likely Cleveland, Seaton, and most of all Garrison will see their enrollments continue to grow.
There's substantial unmet demand to live in central DC neighborhoods. Ross, one of the city's highest-performing elementary schools, has drawn many families to move into or stay in smaller apartments to be in this top school district, and that's likely to also happen at the other Shaw feeder schools as they improve.
I'm concerned about these schools “flipping” to be highly desirable, and in the context of their neighborhoods' high and rising incomes, becoming almost exclusively high-income families. DCPS should institute an explicit policy of retaining some income and racial diversity, including a set-aside for out of boundary students if necessary. But such a policy would then create even more need for ample educational capacity in these neighborhoods, meaning DCPS should plan for excess school capacity at existing schools and other sites, like Garnet-Patterson, which could become new elementary schools in the future.
I think in the medium to long term, DCPS would be wise to plan for as many school seats in the middle of the city and near Metro as it can reasonably fit. DCPS wants to grow its enrollment, and one advantage it has over charters is it has a bunch of land in central, Metro-accessible areas. It should make the most of that, while still committing to and improving schools in all other parts of DC as well.
Can everyone get what they want?
The current Shaw building is two stories. But MacFarland and the current Banneker are three, and many new buildings in DC are four, five, and six or more. Other cities build more vertically, and even put playgrounds on the roofs of schools.
DC could ask firms applying for the Banneker project to design a building as part of a master plan for the site. This could include space for Banneker and a middle school, with both ground-level and rooftop recreation space. The plan could also look at the adjacent Seaton site, which is 13th on the list for modernization and not funded in the DC six-year capital plan.
The master plan also should consider parks and recreational facilities including the existing skate and dog parks. With Metro nearby, it shouldn't need much parking, and DCPS could provide for the needs of teachers without Metro access through on-street parking permits or other means.
Unlike at Cardozo, where the middle and high schools share a building, share facilities like bathrooms and the cafeteria, and have one shared principal and common staff, these could be separate schools in separate buildings, just adjacent. That's the case for MacFarland and Roosevelt High School, which also have separate buildings sharing contiguous property.
There are benefits to co-location as well. Advanced middle schoolers at School Without Walls at Francis-Stevens can go to the School Without Walls high school for courses if SWWFS isn't able to meet their academic needs; it's possible the same could apply for Shaw and Banneker.
Ross parent Daniel Adler crunched some numbers for this. He wrote in an email, “the Shaw site is 174,000 square feet (or 4 acres). The Banneker RFP calls for a building of 167,000 sq. ft. Built in a 4 story configuration (3 + basement), such a building could have a footprint of as little as 42,000 sq. ft. or 25% of the Shaw site. The footprint could be smaller if they also built penthouse space.”
Meanwhile, Adler explained, a 300-400 student middle school would be 52-68,000 square feet at DCPS recommended sizes per pupil, and “built in a 4 story configuration that would have a footprint of 13-17,000 sq ft (or 7-10% of the Shaw site). So together the two programs would take up less than 40% of the site, leaving ample outdoor space.”
Adler also suggested considering a combined elementary and middle school campus when Seaton gets modernized. Many parts of Seaton are just one story now. Unlike the Cardozo middle-high school education campus which is unpopular, the elementary plus middle school approach has been popular at Francis-Stevens, he explained.
The whole master plan need not be built at once; the Banneker portion could happen first, followed by the middle school. Potentially, the middle school program could even share some of the Banneker building in the interim, since Banneker won't jump overnight from its current enrollment of 500 to 800 students immediately.
The Banneker community and Shaw feeder communities can get their schools. All it takes is planning and a willingness to build up, and if that can't happen in Logan/Shaw, which includes the densest Census tract in the entire region (partly in the Seaton boundary and partly in Thomson), where can it? DCPS held a workshop with affected parents and community leaders on February 26 and will have another Wednesday, March 6, 6:00-8:00 pm at Cleveland Elementary School.
I am a member of the DCPS Strategic School Planning Advisory Board, which advises DCPS on issues like this but on more of a systemwide basis and hasn't gone into depth on this particular issue. My daughter attends Ross Elementary School.