A Washington, D.C. public high school graduated dozens of students in 2017 who did not meet necessary attendance requirements, according to a November report by NPR and WAMU prompting a District-wide investigation.
The report alleged that Frank W. Ballou High School, which has historically had low graduation rates, altered attendance records to allow students who missed far more than the allotted limit to graduate. In response to the report, D.C. Public Schools and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education are conducting investigations of Ballou alongside a review of District-wide practices.
In 2016, Ballou’s graduation rate was 57 percent. Its jump to 64 percent in 2017 was celebrated by the community, and made national headlines. Ballou not only increased its graduation rate, but all 164 of its graduates were accepted to college for the first time in the school’s history.
In D.C., the maximum number of unexcused absences permissible to still receive course credit is 30 missed classes. However, NPR and WAMU obtained documents showing that over half of the 164 graduates missed three months of school. Records show one student even missed 150 days of school and still graduated.
According to an email obtained by NPR and WAMU, only 57 students were set to graduate as of April 2017.
Teachers said pressure from school administrators to pass students was high.
Teachers described school policies designed to help students pass, according to NPR and WAMU.
For example, students were placed in credit recovery courses — accelerated classes intended for students who have failed a class — before having actually failed the corresponding course.
Another school policy that helps students pass classes, teachers told NPR, ensures the lowest grade a student can receive on an assignment is 50 percent, even if the assignment was never handed in or the student scored a lower grade.
Administrators control teacher evaluations, which the nearly dozen teachers interviewed by NPR and WAMU said enables administrators to respond to teacher criticisms with poor evaluations.
“If they don’t like you, they’ll just let you go,” said Monica Brokenborough, a former music teacher at Ballou.
The Office of the State Superintendent of Education aims to ensure their attendance policies are clear, transparent and consistently administered for all students in the District, Fred Lewis, community relations specialist for the office, wrote in an email to The Hoya.
Additionally, DCPS announced Dec. 4 that Ballou’s principal, Yetunde Reeves, was reassigned to another unspecified role.
“At this point, to be honest with you, I don’t know what mistakes were made at Ballou,” Mayor Muriel Bowser said at a Nov. 29 press conference. “We will hold everybody accountable for making sure that this school, just like any school in our system, is run in the way that meets our highest expectations.”
Ballou has been a struggling school for years. According to Ballou’s school profile on the DCPS website, 100 percent of Ballou’s students are considered “economically disadvantaged,” a designation based on family income. Ballou, located in Southeast D.C. is labeled a “priority” school, meaning it “needs intense support to address overall low student performance.”
Despite these challenges, Ballou has made progress in student performance on the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, a standardized test used in various U.S. states to measure student progress. Scores in math increased by two points and English scores rose by 14 points in 2017 from 2016.
The allegations against Balloou come as a blow to Bowser, who launched the Every Day Counts! campaign in August to increase awareness about the importance of school attendance. She also noted in a public letter that all D.C. public school students can use Washington Metropolitan Area
Transit Authority services for free, another measure aimed to minimize barriers to attendance.
While the allegations regarding Ballou are focused on attendance, they are reminiscent of a 2015 report that found approximately one-third of high school graduates in Tennessee failed to earn all necessary credits for graduation. The state’s education department initiated the audit because of the difficulty Tennessee students were having with college admission.
The D.C. Office of the State Superintendent of Education, in conjunction with an outside firm, is expected to deliver its report within 45 days. D.C. Public Schools said it is beginning its investigation immediately.
“We take this issue very seriously, and we know that policies must be explained clearly and implemented with fidelity,” D.C. Public Schools’ Chancellor Antwan Wilson said in a statement released Monday evening. “This investigation will restore integrity to the process by providing students, parents, and the broader community with answers.”