Whatever Happened to The Class of 2005?

By V. Dion Haynes and Aruna Jain
Sunday, October 7, 2007

Danielle Chappell had no reason to doubt she was a solid student. She earned decent grades, even scoring some A's in English and math, while balancing schoolwork with basketball, track and a spot on the dance team.

Then she graduated from Cardozo High School and arrived at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, where she bombed the placement tests so badly that she had to take remedial English and math. She failed the makeup math course twice before passing it. Low grades overall put her on academic probation. Finally, mid-sophomore year, she was forced to withdraw.

Chappell sometimes thinks back to the Cardozo math teacher who, instead of assigning algebra homework, would have students clip photos of motorcycles from magazines and do other projects unrelated to math. "I thought it was strange and weird," Chappell said, but she did not complain because the class was "an easy A."

She wishes now that she had demanded more from Cardozo, and that Cardozo had demanded more from her. Listen to Danielle.

To examine the fate of one graduating class of D.C. high school students is to find multiple stories like Chappell's -- stories that illustrate how a struggling urban school system often fails to shepherd its students and set them on a promising path to adulthood.

Efforts to fix the District's public schools have long been hampered by an inability to collect accurate information about many aspects of the system, such as a reliable dropout rate or a way to track how students have fared after leaving.

The Washington Post surveyed Cardozo's Class of 2005 with those questions in mind, reaching 127 students or their families, just over half of the 243 who began as freshmen. Cardozo, which overlooks the city from a hill in Columbia Heights, was chosen because it falls between the highest- and lowest-performing schools in the District.

Over four years, the class had its share of bright spots -- hints of what might be possible given more resources, better management and more family support. But the survey showed that, despite heroic efforts by some teachers and administrators, Cardozo's generally low academic standards led to disappointment in college. Other students said they suffered from the failures of a city public school system that could not keep records straight, classrooms orderly or hallways safe.

More than one third, or 49, of the students surveyed had dropped out of high school, often citing their inability to keep up, their need to get a job or the absence of efforts by school officials to keep them in. Three students are still in high school -- one at Cardozo.

Fifty-five are working, in jobs that include firefighter, carpet cleaner and parking attendant, but the vast majority are earning just about the minimum wage. Eighteen are unemployed.

Three students in the group are dead -- one from natural causes, one was fatally beaten by her boyfriend and the third was the victim of a distressingly common urban scenario. He was shot 19 times in a drive-by, his killer never found. One young man is in jail, awaiting trial on charges of armed robbery.

But other students proudly reported their successes. They described digging for every opportunity they could find at Cardozo or elsewhere, graduating and making their way to college. Seventy-eight of the 127 students The Post contacted graduated from high school and 39 of those surveyed are attending a trade school or college, many at the University of the District of Columbia and other nearby institutions.

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