Bowser, Wilson address Ballou High’s attendance issues amongst graduates

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Muriel Bowser is the D.C. mayor. (Brian Kapur/The Current/February 2016)

The news that only 64-of-177 students from last year’s Ballou High School graduating class actually did their work and showed up for class did not sit well with Mayor Muriel Bowser on Jan. 16.

She had some home truths this week for parents and students.

“Our biggest responsibility is to let kids know that showing up half the time doesn’t work anywhere in life,” Bowser said. “It doesn’t work at school. It’s not going to work at work. It’s not going to work at any of the civil responsibilities that you pursue. The huge investment we have made in turning around our schools is only going to work if students are sitting in their seats.”

Bowser, along with D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) Chancellor Antwan Wilson and State Superintendent of Schools Hanseul Kang, met with reporters at a press conference on Tuesday at the Wilson Building. They answered questions about the findings of an independent audit of graduation rates, attendance and the use of credit recovery courses by failing students. The audit was sparked by an investigative report from radio station WAMU and made public six weeks ago.

The news in the report prepared by Alvarez & Marsal showed that problems have gotten worse in recent years.

Despite their poor attendance records, graduation rates among students classified as “chronically absent” have increased considerably in the last three years. The report says during the 2016-17 school year, almost 8 percent of graduates were “extremely chronically absent,” meaning they were absent more than half the time. That’s up from 3.7 percent in 2014-15.

According to the report, in the 2016-2017 school year, 82 percent of seniors who missed 30 to 50 percent of school graduated. Of those who missed more than half, 44 percent graduated. The problem has been increasing over time. Between 2014-2015 and 2016-2017, the graduation rate for students with extreme chronic absenteeism has increased by more than 20 percentage points.

Wilson wants D.C. schools to provide “rigorous and joyful learning opportunities,” and said students should feel loved and challenged. But he believes that a fuzzy understanding of love may have contributed to the trouble.

“Love is not about lowering expectations and forgetting that students need educating,” he said. “They must be prepared for success in school, and once they have graduated.”

Williams said that graduation rates should not be regarded as the most important goal at D.C. schools, but rather providing a “world-class education” for students. If students have more than 30 unexcused absences, they will fail the course. Wilson said credit recovery classes are valuable, but need to be rigorous.

The chancellor, who took office in December 2016, was interviewed Wednesday on WAMU’s “The Kojo Show.” He said teachers felt tremendous pressure to pass students. In response to a caller’s question about “two teachers who squealed and were let go,” Wilson clarified that three teachers were dismissed.

“Three teachers are involved in collective bargaining,” he said. “We will let that process work itself out. We are committed now to allowing people to make complaints.”

In response to another question about the credit recovery system and online instruction, Wilson said teachers are indispensable.

“I tend to oppose removing teachers completely from education,” he said. “Credit recovery courses should be taught at a rigorous level. Those courses should be at a higher standard than the original course, which would discourage students from using them as a fallback.”

At the press conference, Bowser said she would like to see parents notified not only when their children are absent for a whole day of school, but also when they miss one period. She also said that teachers have complained about the amount of documentation required to fail a student.

Wilson denied that he had learned in August about the problems at Ballou.

“I learned about a grievance that contained this information in, I want to say, October, not August or September,” he said.

The audit also showed the problem is not confined to Ballou. On Wednesday, Ward 3 Council member Mary Cheh issued a press release criticizing Wilson High School for ignoring attendance requirements in the case of one-third of its graduating seniors.

Cheh said the report from the Office of the State Superintendent of Education showed at least 34 percent of Wilson graduates did not meet attendance requirements.

“This is proof, yet again, that the problem is not limited to one or two high schools; rather there is systemic pressure to push students through the system. By protecting DCPS officials, we are cheating our students and that is appalling. It will be very difficult for me to trust future claims of growing graduation rates when we have evidence today that DCPS has been cooking the books or not following their own policies,” she said.