Tom Sherwood’s Notebook: More than just Ballou, of course …


The John A. Wilson Building at 1350 Pennsylvania Ave. NW holds the offices for the mayor and D.C. Council. (photo courtesy of Josh Gibson)

What are we to make of Ballou?

Radio partners WAMU and NPR delivered a devastating look at the backstory behind Ballou High School’s most recent, glowing graduation statistics.

Simply stated, too many students at the Southeast school graduated with suspect grades and many, many weeks of absences.

Mayor Muriel Bowser and Chancellor Antwan Wilson immediately vowed at a news conference to review the Ballou situation and take steps to ensure that system-wide graduation policies were being followed.

For the Notebook, though, the news conference suffered from a bureaucratic cool that diluted the significance of the moment. It was only as she headed to an elevator that Mayor Bowser quietly said one word that captured the disappointing situation: “heartbreaking.”

The mayor at that moment was thinking of the students, both the ones who may have faulty graduation credentials and, maybe worse, the student who did work hard, succeeded and now may have a cloud over their own real achievements.

Three different tracks of reaction have arisen in the wake of the Ballou story.

The first is the least constructive. Some promptly said the news report proved that public school reforms are more public relations than results.

Two, how could this happen? Did a sloppy school front office allow this, and did it maybe purposefully do so to make the school look better?

A third response: Why pick on Ballou? There are attendance problems across D.C. Public Schools, so why pick on a high school in the poorest part of the city? Everyone knows or should know that there are intense socioeconomic pressures that affect attendance and achievement.

On the WAMU Politics Hour last Friday, D.C. Council Education Committee chair David Grosso said some Ballou students feel picked on. He said finding the truth at Ballou is important, but he said he agreed with the sentiment that the school was singled out.

“There are nuances here that are very important,” he said. “I also think it is important for us to note that the District of Columbia has had issues with attendance across the board. It is not a Ballou High School situation.” Grosso said a citywide task force of educators and city officials meets “on a monthly basis” to talk about attendance.

Grosso is holding a hearing this Friday on the issues. “I think it’s unfair to just focus on Ballou High School in this situation,” he said.

Producers for host Kojo Nnamdi said the phones lit up with callers worried that Grosso was minimizing the detailed reporting of irregularities among both administrators and students. Many students surely have difficult family and home situations that keep them from school. For some other students, they simply don’t go to class because there’s no consequence if they don’t.

We asked Grosso whether there’s a danger that focusing on a broad review of citywide school problems might miss the issues detailed by the report at Ballou specifically. While his committee plans to look at the broader picture, the council member responded, “I do believe that there is going to be a deep dive into the Ballou questions” by education officials.

It may turn out that the system’s “credit recovery” policies — which allow students to make up for lost time and weeks of absences — need revisions. The review also may point out that pupil-based funding formulas shortchange schools with high poverty needs.

More Grosso. Council member Grosso’s appearance on the Politics Hour was notable for another reason. He flatly shot down suggestions (we’re looking at you, Harry Jaffe of the Washingtonian) that he should or would run for mayor.

“I actually think Mayor Bowser is doing a good job,” Grosso declared, “and I have no intention of running against her.” The Notebook responded, “You just endorsed her for re-election.” Grosso repeated, “I think she’s doing a good job.”

But what about former Mayor Vincent Gray? The current Ward 7 council member is weighing whether to challenge Bowser in 2018 to reclaim the office he believes prosecutors effectively stole from him in 2014.

Grosso said he thought Gray — who has held a few elective positions — should remain on the council where he, too, is doing a good job.

“I also believe that Chairman Gray, Vincent Gray, Council member Gray, Mayor Gray is doing a great job right now as the head of the Committee on Health,” said Grosso. “And I really love working with him.”

Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.