WASHINGTON — An investigation into graduation requirements and absentee policies at Ballou High School found that teachers were pressured by the school’s principal and other administrators to pass students despite their grade or the number of unexcused absences.
The review also found a pattern at Ballou of allowing students to graduate who have an extreme number of absences, contradicting D.C. Public Schools policy, plus inappropriate or excessive use of credit recovery courses that allow students to make up missed course work.
Records for 133 out of 177 graduating Ballou seniors indicated policy violations, said Hanseul Kang, state superintendent of education for D.C., who relayed the initial report’s findings.
Students with excessive absenteeism also have been graduating at higher rates than in the past at schools across the city. Although it was unclear what was driving that increase, Kang said.
Chancellor Antwan Wilson called the report’s findings troubling and said it uncovered failures at many levels — including in the chancellor’s office and at the school level — and he said he’d wished he learned about the problems at Ballou sooner.
“My commitment to the city is to make sure that the diploma is what it is supposed to be — that is an indication of student readiness, an indication that our students got the education that they deserve,” Wilson said.
More than 60 percent of graduating Ballou students had excessive absences, he said.
D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser ordered the review into absentee policies and graduation rates after reports surfaced in November that dozens of students at Ballou High School graduated in 2017 without meeting requirements.
The WAMU report said that one in five graduates at Ballou were absent more often than they were in class. One senior reportedly had missed more than 150 days of school. The radio station investigation also found that some seniors could not read or write and that as of April, only 57 of the 164 seniors were on track to graduate, yet all received diplomas.
Principal Yetunde Reeves was reassigned to the main office on administrative duties. But Bowser said she is now on administrative leave and could face termination pending an internal review. A new principal will be hired to replace her.
An assistant principal, who remains on the job, has been referred to the school system’s human resources department, Wilson said. He and Bowser declined to offer more details about any discipline that could result from the report.
Parents and students had defended Reeves. They argued D.C. Public Schools’ attendance policy is too rigid — if students miss one class they are considered absent for the entire day.
Wilson said he recognized the challenges the District’s students face — taking care of younger siblings, transportation. But he said the grading policy is clear: Students need to be in school for each class.
Wilson said that he planned to provide more training, support and communication with school leaders and teachers were needed to reinforce existing policy. He also said he hoped to provide teachers a direct channel to the chancellor’s office so they could share concerns instead of relying on employee reviews to voice grievances with their supervisors.
He also planned to review how other high schools in the system are complying with grading, attendance and credit recovery policies. And he said the central office would review transcripts for graduating seniors to ensure they had met DCPS standards to graduate and had truly earned a diploma.
In a statement, Councilman David Grosso, D-At-large, said he had “grave concerns about the “systemic issues” uncovered at the District’s neighborhood high schools. He urged residents to share their concerns and experiences with the Council’s education committee.
“It is heartbreaking that we have failed these students. In all likelihood, their senior year was not the first time they struggled with school related subject matter or with attendance,” Grosso said.
This is not the first time that District schools have faced attendance problems, Bowser said. And she encouraged parents, guardians and students to make sure children are in school, on time, for the full day.
“Showing up half the time doesn’t work anywhere in life — it doesn’t work at school it’s not going to work at work,” Bowser said. “The huge investments that we’ve made in turning around our schools only work if kids are sitting in the seats.”
A Districtwide report is expected at the end of the month.
The superintendent’s office hired the firm Alvarez & Marsal to conduct the Ballou review while the office looked at District-wide attendance.