D.C. pub­lic schools’ tru­ant lead­er­ship

The Washington Post - - FREE FOR ALL - COL­BERT I. KING kingc@wash­post.com

The press of other worka­day news sto­ries, plus added re­ports of White House dev­il­try, over­shadow the scan­dal brew­ing in the pub­lic school sys­tem of our na­tion’s cap­i­tal. The schools story ought to oc­cupy the minds of ev­ery­one who pro­fesses to care about the fu­ture of the District.

The facts, laid out this week in an email from D.C. Coun­cil Chair­man Phil Men­del­son (D), cap­ture the scope of the of­fense, as doc­u­mented in a Nov. 28 re­port, “What Re­ally Hap­pened at Bal­lou, the D.C. High School Where Ev­ery Se­nior Got Into Col­lege,” by WAMU and NPR.

“Of the stu­dents en­rolled as se­niors at Bal­lou [Se­nior High] last year, 164 re­ceived diplo­mas. How­ever, half of those grad­u­ates were tru­ant more than three months of school, un­ex­cused. Twenty-per­cent were tru­ant more than half the school year. One stu­dent missed over 150 days, but grad­u­ated,” Men­del­son wrote. Wait, there’s more. “Nu­mer­ous teach­ers as well as stu­dents,” wrote the coun­cil chair­man, “have said that teach­ers felt pres­sure to pass chron­i­cally ab­sent stu­dents. If teach­ers pushed back, they might be given poor eval­u­a­tions, putting their jobs at risk.”

Bal­lou’s prin­ci­pal, since re­as­signed to the cen­tral of­fice, says the tru­ancy data is mis­lead­ing be­cause the district’s at­ten­dance pol­icy re­quires that the school mark stu­dents ab­sent if they miss more than 20 per­cent of a day. But Men­del­son, a vet­eran city law­maker with a rep­u­ta­tion for no high jinks or show­boat­ing, said the sys­tem of eval­u­a­tions and pay bonuses in­cen­tivizes so­cial pro­mo­tion. “Two months be­fore grad­u­a­tion,” Men­del­son dis­cov­ered, “only 57 stu­dents were on track to grad­u­ate. But in June, 164 re­ceived diplo­mas.”

To com­pound the scan­dal, it turns out that D.C. school of­fi­cials had been made aware of the alarm­ing sit­u­a­tion months be­fore the story hit the air­waves.

Post writ­ers Mo­riah Balin­git and An­drew Ba Tran re­ported this month that a group of teach­ers met with school of­fi­cials to call at­ten­tion to the cri­sis the day af­ter Bal­lou grad­u­ates re­ceived their diplo­mas in June. The Post also re­ported that a teacher at the school fol­lowed up in an email to Chan­cel­lor Ant­wan Wil­son a month af­ter the meet­ing. Wil­son never re­sponded. The chan­cel­lor, well af­ter the fact, ac­knowl­edged at a coun­cil hear­ing that a teacher had tried to alert him to the Bal­lou sit­u­a­tion. But he said he didn’t look into it un­til the WAMU and NPR re­port aired. Ex­plained Wil­son lamely, “We know that there was a Bal­lou teacher who in Au­gust com­plained through the griev­ance process,” but “our team, pri­or­i­tiz­ing im­pact, had not got­ten to it.”

That is un­for­tu­nate. Had Wil­son and his team at D.C. Pub­lic Schools head­quar­ters got­ten off their duffs and re­sponded, they would have learned that Bal­lou is not an iso­lated prob­lem.

“Last year,” Men­del­son said, “64% of the en­tire [Bal­lou] school was tru­ant 21 or more days. But at H.D. Woodson [High School], 76% was tru­ant 21 days or more days. The num­ber was 54% at Ana­cos­tia, 40% at Car­dozo, 45% at East­ern and 48% at Roo­sevelt.”

Mr. Chan­cel­lor, you have a sys­temwide prob­lem on your hands.

And it seems to be a corol­lary to a de­fi­ciency I wrote about two years ago: The four-year DCPS grad­u­a­tion rate — 58.3 per­cent — was one of the low­est in the na­tion in 2015. The rate for black males was even lower at 48 per­cent. Worse still, 591 DCPS stu­dents in 2014 were dropouts. Sev­eral high schools with grad­u­a­tion rates of 60 per­cent or less were dubbed “dropout fac­to­ries.”

Well, has cur­rent school lead­er­ship ad­dressed that prob­lem with sus­pect grad­u­a­tion rates? As Men­del­son and a hand­ful of city pub­lic of­fi­cials who are not mind­less DCPS cheer­lead­ers are quick to point out, in­flat­ing grad­u­a­tion rates only cheats stu­dents. What else is it but cheat­ing when we pro­mote and hand out diplo­mas to stu­dents who don’t show up for school and who don’t qual­ify to walk across the stage on grad­u­a­tion day?

How does that en­able a stu­dent to ac­quire skills and land a job in this in­creas­ingly com­pet­i­tive world? How does push­ing out stu­dents who haven’t learned ac­tu­ally pre­pare them for the chal­lenges and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of adult­hood?

My late par­ents, my two sib­lings and I are prod­ucts of the D.C. pub­lic school sys­tem. Our schools — once legally and de facto racially seg­re­gated — lacked some of the re­sources found in ma­jor­ity white schools. But the value of our diplo­mas was not de­graded — not at Dun­bar Se­nior High, alma mater of my mom, my sis­ter and me. So­cial pro­mo­tions and in­flated grad­u­a­tion rates were in­ven­tions of the fu­ture. Poverty was no ex­cuse for not learn­ing. De­sire mat­tered. So, too, achieve­ment, re­gard­less of the per­sonal chal­lenges some of us faced in get­ting to school. We were still held to high stan­dards.

Our prin­ci­pals and teach­ers did not en­able fail­ure: They de­manded we meet ex­pec­ta­tions, a crappy world not­with­stand­ing. Hard-work­ing par­ents would have been heart­bro­ken if we had be­trayed them by cut­ting school most of the year.

The scan­dal would have been to throw away the op­por­tu­nity to get an ed­u­ca­tion — and the fail­ure of our prin­ci­pal and teach­ers to pro­vide one.

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