KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
This is a story about an achievement that isn't all it seemed.
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MCEVERS: We reported in June about the graduating class at Washington, D.C.'s, Ballou High School. One hundred percent of the graduates had gotten into college, a big deal for the school's low-income neighborhood. Now an investigation by member station WAMU and NPR finds that many of those students shouldn't have graduated in the first place. WAMU's Kate McGee takes it from here.
KATE MCGEE, BYLINE: Ballou High School's 2017 graduation happened on a warm June evening on the school's brand new football field. This was a chance to celebrate that 100 percent college acceptance rate at a school with a historically low graduation rate. Friends and family were there by the hundreds. TV news crews came. I was there for NPR. The district's chancellor was there, even the mayor, Muriel Bowser.
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MURIEL BOWSER: Be brave. Be bold, and be honest about your talents, your passions, your strengths and even your weakness.
MCGEE: The ceremony was bittersweet for Brian Butcher, a history teacher last year. As he watched students walk across the stage, he thought...
BRIAN BUTCHER: They're nice young people, but they don't deserve to be walking across the stage because you know that some of these kids who are graduating should not be here in the first place.
MCGEE: We began to reach out to teachers when a district employee shared private documents with us including attendance records, class rosters and emails. Hundreds of pages of Ballou's attendance records show half of the graduates missed more than three months senior year unexcused. Monica Brokenborough taught music at Ballou last year.
MONICA BROKENBOROUGH: And I've literally had students on my roster that I have never, ever seen because they've never come to class.
MCGEE: The documents we reviewed showed that 1 in 5 students were absent more than they showed up, missing more than 90 days of school. Here's the thing. District policy says if students miss a class 30 times in a year, they should fail that course. We talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers who say they felt pressured by administration to pass absent, unprepared students. And students knew school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation. One 2017 graduate we spoke to missed a total of about four months last year.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Laughter) My senior year, coming to school - I came when I wanted to. Honestly, I didn't have to be there, and I didn't want to be there, so...
MCGEE: Plus, she says, she was working full-time to pay rent. We aren't using her name to protect her privacy. She's in college now and says she's struggling in some of her classes. According to an internal school email, one-third of graduates weren't on track academically to graduate in April, but by June, they did receive their diplomas. Brian Butcher and other teachers say the message to them was, find a way for students to pass.
BUTCHER: It was a smoke and mirrors. This is what it was.
MCGEE: One way to pass kids - give students make-up work like worksheets or projects for lessons students missed. Morgan Williams taught health and physical education last year. She says this was an easy out.
MORGAN WILLIAMS: And that's the mentality that they're setting for them. I could just skip the whole semester, get a packet, do the packet and go on about my business. And the packets that they were asking for were nowhere near standards.
MCGEE: She was on maternity leave the last term of the year. As graduation loomed, she says she got calls from school leaders asking her to pass a kid she previously failed.
WILLIAMS: Just give him the D because they were trying to get him out of there.
MCGEE: Another method to graduate kids - accelerated after-school courses known as credit recovery. These classes condense a year-long course into a matter of weeks. D.C. school policy says students should be placed in a credit recovery course after failing. At Ballou, students were put in these courses before they officially failed. Monica Brokenborough says she figured this out looking at the graduation program.
BROKENBOROUGH: I'm seeing names on here, and I'm like, oh, no, no, no, I know this person failed my class. This student maybe only came to my class three times. And no exaggerations - like, some absenteeism was that extreme at Ballou.
MCGEE: The teachers we spoke with say they know these kids are dealing with a lot outside of school. If a student is trying hard but family, life responsibilities or a job is getting in the way, they don't have a problem working with them to make up assignments. But teachers say sometimes students were in the building. They just wouldn't come to class.
BROKENBOROUGH: For you to say that I have to give them make-up work, those students would come to expect it because, like, if one teacher does it and then you don't do it, it makes you look like the bad guy.
MCGEE: Teachers say looking like the bad guy can cost you your job. Continuing employment depends on teacher evaluations, which are given by principals. A really good evaluation comes with a $15,000 to $30,000 bonus. It's unclear who, if anyone, received these bonuses at Ballou. The district wouldn't share that information. Brian Butcher, Morgan Williams and Monica Brokenborough no longer work at Ballou. They received poor teacher evaluations and were terminated after this school year for various reasons.
But they believe they were unfairly targeted for not passing absent kids and for their active involvement with the teachers' union. They're formally contesting their dismissals with the district. We did talk with six teachers still at Ballou. None wanted to speak on the record for fear of retaliation, but they told a similar story. Pass kids, or look like a bad teacher on paper. The school's principal, Yetunde Reeves, wouldn't talk to us, so I went to school district leaders and I asked this question.
I'm wondering how, with so many kids missing 30-plus days, how they passed their courses to be able to graduate.
JANE SPENCE: We've started to recognize that students can have mastered material even if they're not sitting in a physical space.
MCGEE: That's Jane Spence, deputy of high schools. She admits the best way to learn is to be in the classroom. Her boss, District Chancellor Antwan Wilson, chimed in.
ANTWAN WILSON: I think the real question to ask here is, what is going on in the lives of young people that leads them to find getting to school challenging?
MCGEE: But I wanted to know, based on what I heard from teachers about how these students advanced, is this the right way to graduate students? Before I could ask, Chancellor Wilson and Deputy Spence got up.
WILSON: I have to slide away.
MCGEE: So are you sticking around for more questions or...
MCGEE: ...Michelle, I thought we said we had an hour.
MICHELLE LERNER: Yeah, I think we just had some scheduling problems, but...
MCGEE: That's communications head Michelle Lerner you hear at the end. Next we looked to D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser, but her office pointed us back to the school district. In our second interview weeks later, Jane Spence joined us by phone and acknowledged all these absences are a problem.
SPENCE: Our students need to get here every day. And we continue to ask our community and our families to partner with us to get students to school every day.
MCGEE: But she reinforced that many students have real issues that prevent them from getting to class, and schools need to find other ways to help absent kids succeed. She and Chancellor Wilson say these policies - the make-up work and after-school classes - can be part of the solution if they're implemented with rigor. Chancellor Wilson admits that's not happening at all schools.
WILSON: I think the issue that we have to fix at several of our schools - just to make sure that kids don't feel they can miss however many weeks and then just come in at the end and say, I'd love to get my make-up work.
MCGEE: Ultimately these district leaders stand by Ballou High School's decision to graduate these students. The current senior class, the class of 2018, is also working toward a 100 percent college acceptance rate. For NPR News, I'm Kate McGee in Washington.
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