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Delonna Jones is a 10-year-old with twisty braids and a toothy grin. She struggles with reading and is repeating the third grade at Ketcham Elementary School in D.C. this year. She says she gets distracted when other children tease her. "Kids like to pick on me," she says. "I get into fights sometimes."
Delonna is one of about 100 children, a third of this school, who are homeless. Nearly the entire school qualifies for free and reduced-price lunch. School is one of the few constants in Delonna's life, as with many other children here. She loves her third-grade teacher best. "She called me her favorite," Delonna says shyly.
Schools in D.C. — traditional and charter — have the nation's lowest graduation rates when compared to state averages. Just 62 percent of students complete high school in four years.
Experts believe you can tell by third grade whether children will graduate high school based on clear early warning signs, or what they call the ABCs: attendance, behavior and course performance. Delonna struggles with all three.
Educators say students face numerous challenges related to poverty that spill into the classroom. Immediate needs, like food and shelter, can make school a lower priority. Many students at Ketcham come late. Sometimes not at all. Delonna missed three weeks of school last year.
Behavior is another early warning sign for dropping out – even in the lower grades. Research has long confirmed that children who witness violence in their everyday lives can become emotional and aggressive, and outbursts can disrupt learning.
So at Ketcham, Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger has structured the school day around stability and consistency. "There's a lot of ugly realities outside of the school communities that kids deal with, and we can't shy away from attacking those issues head-on."
The school provides mental health services, free bus tokens for parents and even an after-school food pantry.
At that food pantry, Delonna Jones carefully selects items including canned vegetables, cabbage and cornbread mix. She sorts out the lighter items like macaroni and granola bars and puts them in her 6-year-old sister's backpack, while she and her 9-year-old sister, Delaya, carry the heavier items like shampoo and juice. "My principal sometimes takes us home in the car. Otherwise we put it in our backpacks so it won't fall."
Julia Zahn, the homelessness liaison at Ketcham, says the school has partnerships with 20 different nonprofits. She has closets full of winter coats, shoes and mittens in a variety of sizes. "When families move and don't have access to their belongings, being able to pick out a stuffed animal is really helpful."
In this urban school district, 76 percent of students are low-income. And schools spend a lot of time meeting their basic needs. One school packs food for about 70 children to take home for the weekend so they have something to eat. Another has a relationship with a bakery to give families fresh bread. Some even provide turkeys at Thanksgiving, but the need is much greater than the resources.
Delonna wants to be a teacher when she grows up, to "help children learn to write their name."
Despite the challenges so many children here face, Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger and teachers here say they believe students like Delonna can beat the odds.
"If we just look at the statistics there would be no reason for us to be here, right?" she says. "But we're in the business of changing lives."
Click here for more on DC's dropout crisis from WAMU.