Maintaining Community and Sustaining Excellence

An Update on the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School

January 27, 2020

Pozen Prize announcement
2019 Pozen Prize winner Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School
Read the Benjamin Banneker Charter School case study
Read the Editor’s Note: In the months before COVID-19 forced school closures across Massachusetts, the Boston Foundation partnered with the Rennie Center to conduct a case study of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School, the winner of the 2019 Pozen Prize for Innovative Schools. The case study would have been released last spring at the 2020 Pozen Prize ceremony, but with the pandemic raging, the ceremony was canceled. The case study tells the Banneker’s remarkable story of school improvement and sustained excellence, describing how the school achieves success by creating an environment that celebrates and affirms the culture and identity of every student, family, and staff member. This blog post serves as an update and a complement to the case study, detailing how the Banneker has sustained its powerful community and impressive academic gains amidst the challenges of a global pandemic. 

On a typical Tuesday morning, the entryway of the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School in Cambridge buzzes with the voices and laughter of students, families, and staff. But March 17, 2020 was not a typical Tuesday. The Governor had just released an order to close all school buildings due to COVID-19 – a reality that presented many challenges to a community built on close and authentic relationships between educators, students, and families. As Banneker’s tech-savvy students and educators logged into school remotely for the first time, it was hard for many to hide their shock and concern about the uncertainties that lay ahead. The Banneker staff, accustomed to regular in-person staff meetings, gathered virtually using Google Classroom to discuss their first priority: the wellbeing of students and families. 

Staff and students refer to the Banneker as “a family,” “a community,” and “a home.” With their physical meeting space closed abruptly, many were concerned about their ability to maintain these community bonds in a time of physical distancing. In the initial days of school closure, staff made contact with every Banneker family. Teachers asked parents about family wellbeing, food security, housing security, and technology access. School leaders connected families with local resources, provided school iPads for use at home, referred families to local internet providers, and helped solve concerns about remote learning. Most importantly, these initial conversations reassured students and families that the community they’d built at the Banneker would remain intact throughout the pandemic. 

Banneker leaders credit these close connections between Banneker staff and families with the high rates of student engagement throughout the pandemic. On the first days of remote learning, the school had a 95% attendance rate. Within two weeks, most classrooms were running a full schedule, recognizing children’s need for routine and consistency amidst the unpredictability of the pandemic. Parents and caregivers welcomed the school into their homes, many expressing that they saw Banneker staff as an extension of their family’s support system during a time of crisis. Throughout the spring, and after reopening this fall on a hybrid model, daily attendance rates have remained consistently above 90%. 

This sense of community was apparent in mid-June, when Banneker’s educators, students, and families came together for the virtual drive-in graduation for the Class of 2020. Honoring a long tradition of celebration through the arts, community members gathered in cars in the parking lot and virtually on YouTube for an evening of song, dance, and storytelling. Recognizing the 2020 graduates in true Banneker style, students and teachers sang, choreographed, and recorded a performance of Lift Every Voice and Sing, often regarded as the Black National Anthem. In the video performance, students were featured socially distanced and wearing masks, singing and dancing in front of the school building. Dozens of peers joined the celebration using Google Classroom. The graduation performance concluded with chants of “victory!” and “we are the future!” -- an appropriate sendoff for a group of students who forever will remain a part of the Banneker family.

The case study from the Rennie Center is a glimpse of the Banneker pre-COVID-19. It describes a school that celebrates the unique culture, heritage, and gifts of every child and educator who walks through its doors. The study describes how adults encourage students to bring their full selves into the school building, leading to strong relationships between educators, students, and families. Over the past several months, the Banneker has proven that the crisis of the times, the shifts to remote or hybrid instruction, and the uncertainties of social unrest across the country cannot damage the strength of a community working together to do what is in the best interest of children. 

Tyrone Mowatt is the Executive in Residence at the Benjamin Banneker Charter Public School. Annelise Eaton is the Research Director at Rennie Center for Education Research and Policy.