Thank you Councilmember Grosso and Members of the Committee on Education for holding this Public Roundtable on plans for the Shaw Junior High School Campus. I appreciate the opportunity to testify this morning. My name is Jessica Sutter and I was recently elected to serve as the new Ward 6 Representative to the DC State Board of Education. I am here to offer my support for a middle school to be built on the land previously home to Shaw Junior High.
I have three main reasons for supporting this use of the property.
My first reason is honoring community trust. The recent DME Cross-Sector Task force report cited interest in “a cohesive, coordinated, citywide approach to education.” One suggestion for actionable, cross-sector solutions cited by the same report was the need to “share information.” I note both of these points because the current plan for the Shaw property from DC Public Schools and the Mayor’s office seems to have fallen short on both coordination and information sharing.
Community members in Shaw have been engaged in an effort to re-open a middle school on the Shaw property for a decade. Discussions about re-locating Banneker High School to the property appear to be less than a year old. These discussions began with only one community – the Banneker High School community – as part of the modernization planning process in October 2017. Even after a February 2018 meeting announced a “feasibility study” to consider the possibility of relocating Banneker HS to the Shaw site, the Shaw community was not engaged by DC Public Schools.
This change in plans for the Shaw site without engaging the Shaw community is a breach of community trust. Acting-DME Paul Kihn noted in his confirmation hearing last week that he is charged with rebuilding trust that has been lost between the community and education leaders. This recently announced plan is certainly a rough start to rebuilding trust with the Shaw community.
My second reason for supporting a middle school on the Shaw property is the possibility of building a diverse-by-design school in the heart of our city. DC’s growth in population and changing demographics has led to gentrification, increasing racial segregation in housing patterns and in school enrollment. During my campaign, I listened to neighbors who wanted strong neighborhood schools and racially diverse schools. In so many of our neighborhoods in Ward 6 – and all across DC – figuring out how to meet both of those interests is difficult, a bit like finding the mythical unicorn. But a middle school on the Shaw property – fed by Cleveland, Garrison, Ross, Seaton & Thomson ES – might come pretty close to unicorn status. Each of the schools serves a racially diverse population. Four of the five meet the community-eligibility status for Title I funds. All five serve 19 percent or more students who are English Language Learners (ELLs). At a time when our District neighbors say they want diverse, community-based schools, we have the opportunity to offer them both, in a location that is less than 1 mile from each of the slated feeder schools. (For reference, the possibility of a new middle school in the current Banneker site would be 1 mile or more walking from 4 of the 5 schools. It would be .7 miles from Cleveland ES).
My final reason for supporting a middle school on the Shaw site is meaningful choice. As part of my campaign, I made no secret of my support for the robust choice system we have developed in the District. I am glad our families have so many options when deciding on schools. But I want all our families to have a realistic opportunity to access the kinds of school choices that may best suit their child. Students should not have to travel west of the Anacostia River to have a selective admissions high school option. Students in all eight wards should have access to language immersion programs. Students in the middle of our city should have access to a traditional middle school option, serving grades 6 through 8. Right now – they don’t.
As a former middle school teacher, I think middle school is a magical time. Adolescents are fascinating. They are figuring out who they are and who they want to be. Adolescence is also an awkward and challenging time. Our tweens and teens are susceptible to bullying, and struggles with depression and substance abuse. The best middle schools are home to educators who embrace the wonder and challenge that comes with this developmental stage. While a traditional middle school may not be the right configuration for every child in Shaw, it should be a choice available to families. And right now, it isn’t. Neither DCPS nor any of the public charter schools in and around Shaw, Logan Circle, or Dupont Circle offer a traditional grades 6-8 middle school program. The nearest option is Howard University Middle School of Mathematics & Science, a public charter school located just over a mile away from the current property, just down the street from the historic Banneker High School.
Thank you for your time and your consideration.