WASHINGTON — D.C’s mayor and public schools chancellor said Wednesday that they’re ordering a review of policies, and asking teachers to come forward, after a report alleged that dozens of students at a District high school graduated last year without meeting requirements.
“We think these are extremely important allegations, and concerning allegations,” said Chancellor Antwan Wilson at a news conference at D.C. Public Schools headquarters after a WAMU report that charged, among other things, that one in five graduates of Ballou High School were absent more than present over the 181-day school year. One senior reportedly missed more than 150 days.
District policy says that any student who has more than 30 unexcused absences from a particular class receives no credit for that class.
The report, citing documents provided by a DCPS worker, also says that some 12th-graders couldn’t read or write, and that as of April only 57 of the 164 seniors were on track to graduate in June. All 164 did graduate.
“It’s extremely important that students earn the diploma that is received, and when we hear of instances where that’s a concern … we take that extremely seriously,” Wilson said.
He added, “We have students who are doing their best to be on track to be able to graduate this year. And we want to make sure those students who are walking across the stage this summer … have met every expectation that we have in DCPS and they’re prepared for the rigors they’re going to experience in the real world.”
Pressure to pass
The report also said that teachers felt pressured by the administration to pass students and were given bad evaluations — which can endanger a career — if they complained.
“I want to know from any teachers who are feeling pressured,” said Wilson. “… I want to know, and I want to know directly.”
Bowser said teachers should call Jennifer Niles, the deputy mayor for education, at 202-727-3636.
Bowser and Wilson said that a review by the office of the state superintendent of education would be due in 45 days.
Wilson said Principal Yetunde Reeves “is adamant that she’s been in adherence with the expectations, that she has never required anyone to change grades whatsoever.”
Speaking of allegations to the contrary, Wilson said, “That’s what we need to understand: How many people felt that way? Why do they feel that way? What is the evidence of that? And where we find that to be true, to take action to ensure that teachers understand that the grade they give students, I do not expect it to reflect anything other when what students have earned.”
Asked directly whether he believed Reeves, Wilson said, “I believe that the issues raised in this article are extremely important, and I believe it’s important to work with the Ballou community and staff to ensure that what we’re being told by our school leaders is accurate.”
Wilson also said that some other factors needed to be considered: That being marked absent doesn’t necessarily mean a student missed a whole day of school, and thus not every class meeting may have been missed.
‘Extremely important to me’
Still, Wilson, who took over as chancellor in the middle of last school year, said he took the issue personally.
He compared the situation of many Ballou graduates to his own.
“Going to numerous schools, being a part of a family that had no males who graduated from high school. And I’m here because I did learn the material, because I was able to perform on the assessments. So it’s extremely important to me that that is true for students. … That’s the only reason I’m involved in education.”
Asked whether she had faith in DCPS, Bowser said, “I don’t know what mistakes were made at Ballou. But … the review that we will undertake will determine exactly what happened. And if we find that things were done wrong, that there were mistakes made, or even if we find that we can make policies and procedures more clear, that’s what we will do. And we will hold everybody accountable for making sure that this school, just like any school in our system, is run in a way that meets our highest expectation.”
In a statement, D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson said, “We are cheating our students.”
He added, “Social promotion for students who are chronically truant … degrades the value of the diploma for everybody and cheats the students out of an honest future. I expect a full investigation. We must ensure that the situation alleged to have happened at Ballou never happens again – and that this is an isolated situation, which it may not be.”
D.C. Councilmember David Grosso, chairman of the Education Committee, said in a statement that he was “deeply disappointed,” adding that “If students are able to graduate school in light of chronic absenteeism and without producing the appropriate work product, then we are not fulfilling our mission to put them in the best position to succeed in life.”
He said his committee would hold a public roundtable on the issue if graduation in D.C. on Dec. 15 in the John A. Wilson Building. He said Chancellor Wilson would testify, and encouraged “all who are interested” to do the same.
Earlier this month, an independent audit for the Maryland State Board of Education was unable to verify that 24.5 percent of graduated seniors of a sample of graduated seniors in Prince George’s County who had grades changed in 2016 and 2017 had those grades changed for proper reasons.
Bowser said that while Maryland had an outside firm perform their audit, she preferred to let the state superintendent’s office have a chance to do it.