For the past year, a steady stream of news stories have spotlighted D.C.’s Ballou High School, calling into question the validity of last year’s graduation rates. Current students acknowledge the school’s issues with attendance, but they say the school portrayed in the news scarcely resembles the one they know and love. Instead, the students hear a narrative that feels all too familiar: people don’t think “poor black kids” have what it takes to succeed.
They were all eager to talk to me, but none of them wanted me to use their name.
“I just don’t want the attention,” one student said, and the other immediately nodded her head.
To be fair, they’ve already had plenty of it. For months now, Ballou High School has been at the center of a debate on the validity of graduation rates across Washington, D.C. The school first made headlines in June of 2017, when every graduating senior was accepted into college. But in November, WAMU and NPR reported that most of those students shouldn’t have graduated high school in the first place, at least based on their attendance records.
For the three juniors I spoke with for this story, the news reports depict a culture of unprepared students and lax standards that hardly resembles the school they know. “Everything they were saying, I was just like—what student did this?”
America’s Promise got in touch with these students through Mikva Challenge, an America’s Promise Alliance partner and youth civic engagement organization. Through their involvement with Mikva DC’s Issues to Action program, Ballou juniors have been working on a project called “Correcting the Record,” for which they’re analyzing media coverage of their own school.
“They worked hard and they earned their diplomas,” another student said about the class of 2017. “They did their work, they came to school, they did what they were supposed to do.”
At the root of much of the coverage is chronic absence—according to D.C. Public School policy, most graduates missed too much school to graduate—but the students I spoke with don’t think that’s the real story. For them, the attention comes down to a narrative they’ve heard their whole lives: “People just don’t want to see Ballou look good,” a student said, while another interjected, “Or poor black kids at all.”
“I’m not gonna say it’s racist, but there are still double standards because we’re in Southeast,” the first student said. “What makes us different?”
A Complicated History: “One of the Worst High Schools in the Country”
You can’t answer that question without understanding Ballou’s recent history.
Ballou High School, which is named for the first superintendent for DCPS, Frank Ballou, is located in one of the poorest neighborhoods in D.C., with 100 percent of students listed as “economically disadvantaged” and 99 percent “minority.” A Washington Post columnist has called it “one of the worst high schools in the country.”
City officials made an effort to change that when they broke ground on a brand new $142 million building five years ago, which they saw as a symbol for a fresh start for the school and its students. Shortly after the building opened its doors, the school made an effort to overhaul its staff too. In 2015, Ballou announced that it would be “reconstituted,” meaning current teachers would have to reapply for their jobs, a controversial move that officials hoped would get rid of teachers they deemed ineffective and make room for better ones.
When the school surprised the public last year with the news that every senior who graduated had also been accepted to college, the positive headlines implied that the efforts to turn the school around had worked. But the students I interviewed said it didn’t stop people from doubting them.
“I was still hearing negative stuff,” one student said. “When I went out to the city, people I knew said it was fake, doubting us even though we were in the news for good things.”
Following the news stories about Ballou, a follow-up report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE), the local education agency, found that Ballou is far from the only school graduating students with chronic absence, even if it’s the one that’s gotten the most attention. More than 11 percent of 2017 public school graduates in D.C. missed most of the academic year, according to the report.
Despite the pervasiveness of chronic absences throughout the public school system, few other schools have received the attention or the consequences. Less than a week after the initial story questioning the validity of the school’s success story broke, the school’s principal, Yetunde Reeves, was reassigned.
“She cared for everybody, she wanted the best for everybody,” a student said about Reeves. “I feel like they fired her just to say that they did something about the whole situation.”
“Ballou has been disproportionately maligned,” Ballou High history teacher Adam Evans said. “It’s very clear based on subsequent scandals, Ballou was not unique.”
Understanding the Role of Absences
The heart of the issue sounds simple—there’s no way students who miss this much school can be prepared to graduate—but it’s more complicated than that.
Like many others, the students pointed to the system’s 80/20 rule, which mandates that students who miss 20 percent of the school day, the equivalent of one or two classes, be absent for the whole day. There are two reasons critics say this is problematic: First, it only encourages students to miss more school—if a student is going to be counted absent anyway, why show up at all?
Second, the rule ignores that many students have a hard time getting to school because they may have familial obligations like taking their little brother to school, or they may have not felt safe on their commute to school.
“People outside of Ballou, or outside of the school walls, they don’t know that kids actually do have real life situations where they can’t make it,” one student said. “Some people have children, some people have situations where they’re not in a stable home, so you have to think about that. Kids come as much as they can, so don’t turn them away because you don’t know what they could be going through and what they could be sacrificing just to get here.”
The students interviewed for this story are part of the Mikva Challenge Issues to Action program, for which they’re analyzing media coverage of their own school.
History teacher Adam Evans says he didn’t let students’ absences get in the way of preparedness. He was often aware when students had family obligations that caused them to miss class, and he would work with them at lunch to make up assignments. “My grades reflected they learned the material,” he said.
But not everyone agrees with the teachers and students who say the 80/20 rule explains the absences at Ballou. “In order for students to fail in the level the report found in terms of the numbers, it’s not just they were late to school, okay? They missed school. And they didn’t just miss a period, they missed multiple periods,” Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson told WAMU in January.
A Message for the Community
Things have changed at Ballou since the stories broke last fall—seeing their principal leaving was particularly difficult for the students. “Ballou hasn’t been the same since,” one said. “It’s not an enjoyable school anymore. Now I come to school and it’s like a dark cloud over everything. It’s negative.”
As for Adams, he says he no longer has the power to help students who missed class with makeup work. Since the stories broke last fall, Ballou has changed its policies: “When a student reaches her/his 10th unexcused absence, she/he will receive an “FA” (failure due to absence) for the term,” the 2018 policy reads.
Still, they remain fiercely protective of their school and how it (and its students) are portrayed. “Ballou isn’t your normal school,” one student said. “Ballou is like a big family, at least for the class of 2019. We have a very, very good support system, through teachers and counselors.”
They’re also determined not to let the negative coverage get them down or deter them from their own success.
“For my class, I know for a fact that it might truly be 100 percent graduation rate because of the support we have,” a student said. “We got good teachers. They teach you. They know when something’s wrong about you.”
The students know they have the support they need from their teachers to graduate, but when I asked them what the broader community could do to help them be more successful, one student didn’t hesitate: “Stop doubting us.”
Editor’s note: Though we understand best practices generally frown upon the use of anonymous sources in stories, we made the decision to include them here for two reasons. One, we trust the credibility of the organization and adults who put us in touch with these students (and the credibility of the students themselves). Two, we firmly believe in giving young people an opportunity to share their perspectives about the issues that affect them—and we strive to do so in a way in which they remain protected and feel safe. Considering the current scrutiny they and their school are under, they did not feel safe sharing their names along with their voices.
The 5 Promises represent conditions children need to achieve adult success. The collective work of the Alliance involves keeping these promises to America’s youth. This article relates to the promises highlighted below:
A recent situation involving a first-grade student in the University City School District prompted teachers and administrators to consider an unconventional approach.
Rather than immediately focus on any instruction or behavior in the classroom, the district sought to provide the student and his family with basic needs – a trip to the doctor, food and toiletry items.
The following grants and funding opportunities are currently accepting applicants. These grants are not offered through America's Promise Alliance, but they each relate to our Five Promises. If you have questions about these opportunities, please follow the links provided in each item.
Tanya’s work with America’s Promise began in 2005 directing the planning and execution of professional development events designed to encourage greater focus and collaboration within communities to see that all young people receive the Five Promises.
One major challenge to achieving a higher baseline of student health across U.S. schools? According to advocates, it’s that federal and state policymakers respond to particular moments of public crisis by passing narrow and targeted measures rather than considering the whole child.
Teachers should go beyond making diversity days holidays filled with flags, food, and language and focus on global fluency—the knowledge, skills, and mindset needed to live and work effectively and successfully in a globally connected world.