Brian Butcher, a history teacher at Ballou High School, sat in the bleachers of the school's brand-new football field last June watching 164 seniors receive diplomas. It was a clear, warm night and he was surrounded by screaming family and friends snapping photos and cheering.
It was a triumphant moment for the students: For the first time, every graduate had applied and been accepted to college. The school is located in one of Washington, D.C.'s poorest neighborhoods and has struggled academically for years with a low graduation rate. For months, the school received national media attention, including from NPR, celebrating the achievement.
But all the excitement and accomplishment couldn't shake one question from Butcher's mind:
How did all these students graduate from high school?
"You saw kids walking across the stage, who, they're nice young people, but they don't deserve to be walking across the stage," Butcher says.
An investigation by WAMU and NPR has found that Ballou High School's administration graduated dozens of students despite high rates of unexcused absences. We reviewed hundreds of pages of Ballou's attendance records, class rosters and emails after a district employee shared the private documents. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school last year, unexcused. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school.
According to district policy, if a student misses a class 30 times, he should fail that course. Research shows that missing 10 percent of school, about two days per month, can negatively affect test scores, reduce academic growth and increase the chances a student will drop out.
Teachers say when many of these students did attend school, they struggled academically, often needing intense remediation.
"I've never seen kids in the 12th grade that couldn't read and write," says Butcher about his two decades teaching in low-performing schools from New York City to Florida. But he saw this at Ballou, and it wasn't just one or two students.
An internal email obtained by WAMU and NPR from April shows two months before graduation, only 57 students were on track to graduate, with dozens of students missing graduation or community service requirements or failing classes needed to graduate. In June, 164 students received diplomas.
"It was smoke and mirrors. That is what it was," says Butcher.
Pressure to pass students
WAMU and NPR talked to nearly a dozen current and recent Ballou teachers — as well as four recent graduates — who tell the same story: Teachers felt pressure from administration to pass chronically absent students, and students knew the school administration would do as much as possible to get them to graduation.
"It's oppressive to the kids because you're giving them a false sense of success," says one current Ballou teacher, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect her job.
"To not prepare them is not ethical," says another current Ballou teacher who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.
"They're not prepared to succeed," says Morgan Williams, who taught health and physical education at Ballou last year. Williams says the lack of expectations set up students for future failure: "If I knew I could skip the whole semester and still pass, why would I try?"
Williams taught physical education and health at Ballou for two years. She says her students were often chronically absent, but the gym was always full. Students skipping other classes would congregate there, she says, and her requests for help from administrators and behavioral staff to manage these students were often ignored.
Williams, and other teachers we spoke to for this story, say they often had students on their rosters whom they barely knew because they almost never attended class.
Near the end of a term, Williams says, students would appear, asking for makeup work like worksheets or a project. She would refuse: There are policies, and if students did not meet the attendance policy, there was nothing she could do to help them. Then, she says, an administrator would also ask how she could help students pass.
At one point, while she was out on maternity leave, she says, she received a call from a school official asking her to change a grade for a student she had previously failed. "[They said] 'Just give him a D,' because they were trying to get him out of there and they knew he wouldn't do the makeup packet."
Williams says she tried to push back, but she often had 20 to 30 kids in one class. Repeatedly having the same conversation about dozens of students was exhausting. And the school required extensive improvement plans if teachers did fail students, which was an additional burden for a lot of already strained teachers.
Many teachers we spoke to say they were encouraged to also follow another policy: give absent or struggling students a 50 percent on assignments they missed or didn't complete, instead of a zero. The argument was, if the student tried to make up the missed work or failed, it would most likely be impossible to pass with a zero on the books. Teachers say that even if students earn less than a 50 percent on an assignment, 50 percent is still the lowest grade a student can receive.
During the last term of senior year, some seniors who weren't on track to graduate were placed in an accelerated version of the classes they were failing. Those classes, known as credit recovery, were held after school for a few weeks. School district policy says students should only take credit recovery once they receive a final failing grade for a course. At Ballou, though, students who were on track to fail were placed in these classes before they should have been allowed. On paper, these students were taking the same class twice. Sometimes, with two different teachers. Teachers say this was done to graduate kids.
Credit recovery is increasingly used to prevent students from dropping out, but critics argue credit recovery courses rarely have the same educational value as the original course and are often less rigorous. According to class rosters, 13 percent of Ballou graduates were enrolled in the same class twice during the last term before graduation. Often, teachers were not alerted their students were taking credit recovery. Many we spoke with say they didn't realize what was happening until they saw students whom they had flunked graduate. They say the credit recovery content was not intensive and that students rarely showed up for credit recovery.
If teachers pushed back against these practices, they say, administration retaliated against them by giving them poor teacher evaluations. Last year, the district put school administrators entirely in control of teacher evaluations, including classroom observations, instead of including a third party. Many teachers we spoke to say they believe this gives too much power to administrators. A low evaluation rating two years in a row is grounds for dismissal. Just one bad rating can make it tough to find another job. Teachers we spoke with say if they questioned administration, they were painted as "haters" who don't care about students.
"If they don't like you, they'll just let you go," says Monica Brokenborough, who taught music at Ballou last year. She also served as the teachers union building representative, responsible for handling teacher grievances and ensuring the school follows the district's teacher contract, among other duties. Last year, 26 grievances were filed by teachers at Ballou.
"Either you want your professional career on paper to look like you don't know what you're doing," says one teacher who asked for anonymity to protect her job. "Or you just skate by, play by the game."
Playing by the game can have financial benefits. If an evaluation score is high enough to reach the "highly effective" status, teachers and administrators can receive $15,000 to $30,000 in bonuses. D.C. Public Schools wouldn't tell us who gets a bonus, but teachers we spoke with did say the possibility of such a large bonus increases the pressure on teachers to improve student numbers.
Butcher, Brokenborough and Williams no longer work at Ballou. They received low teacher evaluations after the 2016-17 school year ended and were let go for various reasons. They believe they were unfairly targeted and have filed complaints through the local teachers union. Butcher and Williams found new teaching jobs outside D.C.; Brokenborough is waiting to resolve her grievance.
Who is responsible?
Ballou Principal Yetunde Reeves refused to speak to us for this story. But members of the school district office did.
"It is expected that our students will be here every day," said Jane Spence, chief of secondary schools at D.C. Public Schools. "But we also know that students learn material in lots of different ways. So we've started to recognize that students can have mastered material even if they're not sitting in a physical space."
This comes at the same time the district is publicly pushing the importance of daily attendance with a citywide initiative called "Every Day Counts!" City leaders have also made improving attendance a priority, strengthening reporting policies to improve accuracy. To be considered in school, students have to be there 80 percent of the day. If they are absent, parents have five days to submit proof they have an excused absence. Proof like a doctor's note.
Chancellor Antwan Wilson, the head of public schools in the District, says schools also can't ignore what's going on in the lives of students. Many students are managing effects of trauma, family responsibilities, a job — and, sometimes, all of the above. That can make it extra hard to show up to school every day. Federal data released in October found that 47 percent of D.C. students have experienced some kind of traumatic event.
And yet, how did all these kids miss all these days of school, apply to college and still graduate? As we repeatedly asked this, Wilson and Spence abruptly ended our interview.
After we reached out to the D.C. mayor's office for comment, the chancellor and Spence made themselves available for another interview. Ultimately, they stand behind the school's decision to graduate these students despite missing so much school.
When it comes to the district's grading policy, district leaders are quick to differentiate between a student who is absent from a particular class and a student who misses the full day.
"It is possible for a student to have 30 days when they are absent from school, but that doesn't constitute 30 days of absences from the course," Spence says. Still, she says high absenteeism is unacceptable and there's room for growth.
"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," Spence says.
She reinforces that many students are managing real issues that prevent them from getting to class and that schools need to find other ways to help absent kids succeed. She and Wilson say these policies, such as the makeup work and after-school credit recovery classes, can be part of the solution, if they're implemented with rigor. Wilson admits that is not happening at all schools.
"I think the issue we have is to fix at several of our schools, just to make sure that kids don't feel they can miss ... however many weeks and come in at the end and say, 'I'd love to get my makeup work,' " Wilson says.
When we asked Ballou teachers about the issues students are dealing with that make it difficult to attend school, they acknowledged the reality. But some say the school district uses these students' situations as a crutch to ignore larger unaddressed issues in the building, like in-seat attendance and student behavior. In-seat attendance is the percentage of time a student is actually in class. When it comes to attendance, teachers say many students are in the building, but they just don't go to class.
"Kids roam the halls with impunity," says another current Ballou teacher.
"The tardy bell is just a sound effect in that building," says Brokenborough, the former music teacher. "It means nothing."
Teachers say they are willing to help students who struggle to balance school and outside responsibilities like a job or child care, but Brokenborough says some students just simply do not want to attend class and come to expect makeup work. This puts teachers in a tough situation, she says, "because if you don't [give makeup work] and another teacher does, it makes you look like the bad guy."
Many students have figured out they don't have to show up every day.
"These students are smart enough to see enough of what goes on," Brokenborough says. "They go, 'Oh, I ain't gotta do no work in your class; I can just go over here, do a little PowerPoint, pass and graduate.' Again, this isn't about the teachers. What is that doing to that child? That's setting that kid up for failure just so you can showboat you got this graduation rate."
School district leaders, including Wilson, defend the use of makeup work, arguing they want to give students "multiple opportunities" to show they understand material. The teachers we spoke with say they feel the system ultimately reduces academic rigor, serving no one in the end. When these students leave Ballou and go off to college or the workplace, teachers feel they are not prepared to work hard.
One current teacher says, from the perspective of a black teacher teaching predominantly black students, graduating these students is an injustice. "This is [the] biggest way to keep a community down. To graduate students who aren't qualified, send them off to college unprepared, so they return to the community to continue the cycle."
"I came to school when I wanted to"
We interviewed four recent Ballou graduates. We aren't using their names to protect their privacy. Three are in college now, including one student who was absent about half the school year.
"I came to school when I wanted to," she says. "I didn't have to be there; I didn't want to be there."
Senior year wasn't easy for her. She says she wasn't living at home anymore and was working at a fast-food restaurant to pay rent. That need for an income made school even less appealing, "I felt at a point around getting toward winter, I ain't have to be there no more," she remembers. "I felt like I graduated at that point."
While she says she got calls and letters from the school about her absences, she wouldn't show up until they threatened to send her to court for truancy. "That's when I was like, 'Oh, let me go to school.' "
In D.C., students who miss 15 or more days of school without an excuse are supposed to be referred to court services. Last year, Ballou sent just 25 seniors to court services for truancy, but according to documents we obtained, all but 11 graduates should have had court services alerted about their absenteeism.
"Even then, you learn to work the system," the student says. When the school would threaten truancy court, she says, she would show up for a few hours, do her classwork and leave early. She believes it shouldn't matter if she showed up to class as long as she completed her work. Plus, she says, she knew no matter how much school she missed, she wouldn't fail.
"The thing was, they couldn't do that to me and they knew that I knew that."
According to a Washington Post article in May of this year, 21 teachers — more than a quarter of Ballou's teaching staff — left during the 2016-2017 school year, the most teacher resignations of any high school in the District last year. When those teachers left midyear, a substitute often took over, giving students even less motivation to show up to class. "What am I going to keep showing up to this for a substitute for? He ain't gonna teach nothing," the student says.
Another Ballou graduate also says teacher turnover was the biggest problem at the school. Often, teachers would leave without a backup teacher or substitute in place. He says many substitutes didn't know how to teach the content and students lost interest in learning.
"I'm not going to say I always went to class or I always was a good student because I wasn't," he says over the phone from his dorm room. He currently attends a four-year university outside D.C. But this student took honors courses and says he wanted to be at school. He knew college would be hard — he even enrolled in a summer program at his college designed to help low-income, underrepresented students prepare for their first semester. But he says when the fall semester started, "I had reality slapped in the face."
Both students say they are struggling in their college math classes.
With so many teacher vacancies last year, teachers we spoke with say they don't understand how some students passed classes they needed to graduate. Plus, many of the students who were in those classrooms were struggling academically. Last year, 9 percent of students there passed the English standardized test. No one passed the math test. The average SAT score last year among Ballou test takers was 782 out of 1600.
"The elephant in the room is how these kids are getting through middle school and getting through high school," says a current Ballou teacher, speaking anonymously. "That's passing the buck and totally unacceptable, especially from a leadership standpoint."
The school district won't know how many Ballou graduates enrolled in college overall until May, a spokesperson says. We know of 183 students accepted to the University of the District of Columbia, the local community college. But only 16 enrolled this fall.
As the first semester of freshman year winds down, both graduates quoted in this story, who attend four-year universities, say they're trying to stick with it.
"Everybody say you're supposed to go to college for yourself, but I went to college for my family," says the Ballou graduate who stayed in the District for college. "I didn't go 'cause I wanted to. I don't want to. I could care less. But I am going to go ahead and do what I have to do because nothing feels better than going home to your family who look up to you. I got parents who look up to me."
She says she doesn't feel she was prepared for college, though she places some of that blame on herself.
Teachers at Ballou say pushing kids to see a future for themselves and to work toward that future is valuable. But encouraging them to pursue a future they're not prepared for and sending them off without skills is irresponsible. Instead, they say the school and school system need to better prepare students for the hurdles they'll face when they get to college, and they need to hold students accountable when they don't meet the requirements.
Seven months from now, Ballou High School will celebrate another graduating class. The current senior class is also working toward a 100 percent college acceptance rate this year.