When you hear that every single senior at Ballou High School graduated and was accepted into college it is hard to think there is a downside. But, there is a dark truth lurking beneath the snapping cameras, smiling faces, and flying caps.
It was a short-lived victory. Located in one of Washington DC’s poorest neighborhoods, the school has battled with low graduation rates for some time. This year, that all changed when all 164 students applied for college and were accepted. But it wasn’t long until someone queried it.
Brian Butcher, a history teacher at Ballou High School, told NPR: “You saw kids walking across the stage, who, they’re nice young people, but they don’t deserve to be walking across the stage.”
Both NPR and WAMU launched an investigation that uncovered an alarming rate of graduates had high rates of unexcused absences. This was discovered when looking into Ballou’s administration records.
Graphic for @McGeeReports's extremely well-reported investigative piece on absences at Ballou High School. It's also a really striking piece about D.C.'s education system, especially following @NPRCodeSwitch's story on Ron Brown.https://t.co/pPma7F5rNM
— matt ⭐️ (@_mazhang) November 28, 2017
After reviewing hundreds of pages of attendance records, class rosters, and even emails, NPR reported half of graduates missed over three months of school last year, for no reported reason. A fifth of students spent more time absent from school than they did present.
WJLA reported out of 181 teaching days, 26 students graduated with over 100 unexcused absences. One graduate even had 151 unexcused absences, meaning their total attendance for the entire school year was just 30 days.
District policy states that if a student is absent from a class on 30 occasions they will fail the course, NPR reported. However, no students were failed in the academic year of 2016-17.
NPR spoke with many teachers, most of whom wished to remain anonymous. The majority of teachers reported that when the often-absent students did attend lessons, they struggled academically.
For context: Ballou High School is in one of D.C.'s poorest districts and has one of the lowest graduation rates in the city. In 2016, only 57 percent of seniors graduated.
2017: 100 percent.
— Matt Cohen (@Matt_D_Cohen) November 28, 2017
After two decades of teaching in low-performing schools in New York City and Florida, Butcher claimed, speaking with NPR, he had “never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn’t read and write”. This all changed when he began teaching at Ballou where many students were unable to perform even the most simple of academic tasks.
In emails WAMU and NPR were able to obtain, it was revealed that two months before graduation, just 57 out of 164 students were on track to graduate. However, come June, all 164 students made their way onto the stage to collect their diplomas.
Many teachers told NPR they had students on their class schedule they barely knew as they seldom came into their classes.
The teachers claimed they wish to help those who are struggling with real issues like balancing childcare or a job. However, they also report that many students are simply uninterested in attending school.
"I've literally had students on my roster that I have never, ever seen because they've never come to class": Ballou High School's senior class had a 100% college acceptance rate last year. But half of the graduates missed more than 3 months of schoolhttps://t.co/bdWijvT92a
— Lexie Schapitl (@lexieschapitl) November 28, 2017
Absent students are offered ‘makeup” work which is often much less intense compared to the original course. Many students fail to turn up to class and then feel entitled to the makeup work.
Teachers feel torn because countless students don’t deserve the work but “if you don’t [give makeup work] and another teacher does, it makes you look like the bad guy.”
Ballou’s teachers are desperate to encourage the young people to work towards their futures. The fact that all students are now in university is a pyrrhic victory: perhaps many will find themselves working when they realise they cannot gain a degree as easily as their diploma. But, teachers are concerned. It is “irresponsible” to send them off into the world of college totally unprepared.