In June, a day after graduates from Ballou High received their diplomas, a group of teachers met with D.C. Public Schools officials to share an alarming allegation: Students who missed dozens of classes had been able to earn passing grades and graduate.
"It is our sincere hope that this meeting was not merely a formality and that a thorough investigation and call to action will indeed take place inclusive of pertinent stakeholders," Monica Brokenborough, who was then a music teacher at the school, wrote in an email to Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson and district labor-relations officials about a month after the meeting. School officials confirmed that the meeting took place.
Brokenborough said she never got a response.
Wilson, who started at the school district in February, acknowledged recently at a D.C. Council hearing that a teacher had tried to alert him to what was happening at Ballou. But he and other officials did not look into it until the November airing of a WAMU and NPR news report showing that Ballou students who had been repeatedly absent had graduated, he conceded.
"We know that there was a Ballou teacher who in August complained through the grievance process about concerns along with 30 other concerns," Wilson said at the hearing. "Our team, prioritizing impact, had not gotten to it."
Emails and a labor grievance filed in August that were shared with The Washington Post show that Brokenborough, who was the teachers union representative at Ballou, tried time and again to reach district officials about her concerns. Ballou's principal cut Brokenborough's position from the budget this school year; Brokenborough filed a grievance contesting the move, saying it was retribution for her involvement with the union.
The accusations regarding Ballou arise as schools across the nation face scrutiny over efforts to lift graduation rates, with allegations of inflated grades, doctored records and flimsy makeup classes, known as credit-recovery courses, for failing students.
In New York, investigations revealed that some makeup classes consisted of little more than a single multiple-choice test and a couple of essays. In Maryland's Prince George's County, officials launched an investigation into claims that students' grades were changed so they could graduate — allegations made by whistleblowers after the sprawling school system saw a massive gain in its graduation rate. That review found that marks for nearly 5,500 students were altered days before graduation, although investigators did not find that tampering had been ordered by the school district's leadership.
Ballou has emerged as the latest example of concerns about the quest to boost graduation rates. The revelations have spurred an investigation into the Southeast Washington school by the school district and by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education.
At the heart of those concerns: extremely high levels of student absences.
Attendance records shared with The Post by a former D.C. schools employee show that 26 Ballou graduates were marked absent more than 100 days during the 180-day school year. One earned a diploma despite being marked absent 151 times. And the vast majority of the 164 graduates in the class of 2017 were marked absent at least 20 days.
Principal Yetunde Reeves, who has been reassigned to the central office during the investigation, said in an interview that the data on absences is misleading because of the district's stringent attendance policy, which requires that the school mark students absent if they miss more than 20 percent of the school day. She said that many students were marked absent when they were simply late arriving at school or had missed a single class.
But according to the district, nearly 90 percent of Ballou students were chronically absent last year, meaning that they were marked absent at least 18 times. On most days that they were marked absent, they were out of class for at least 60 percent of the school day.
Still, Reeves said, problems with absenteeism are hardly limited to Ballou.
"If you were to look at attendance across high schools across the district, there is an attendance problem districtwide, nationwide," said Reeves, who said she was not speaking on behalf of the district. "This notion of attendance just being a problem at Ballou, that's unfair."
Wilson, the D.C. chancellor, said at the December hearing that at least one-third of graduates in every comprehensive high school missed 30 or more sessions of a course required for graduation. At Ballou, more than half of students missed 30 or more days of a required course.
Data provided by the school district shows that many Ballou students who were marked absent missed more than half of the school day — not just one class.
Reeves said students at the high school face challenges in getting to school: Some care for ailing parents or younger siblings whom they have to drop off at other schools. Others have unstable housing or do not have parents or guardians looking after them. Even students with valid excuses for absences — such as medical appointments — struggle to get the proper documentation so that their absences can be erased.
"Some just have real-life problems, problems bigger than them," said Aliyah Curry, who graduated this year and attends Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. "It impacts their attendance."
Ballou attendance data and grading reports show that several students who graduated should have failed at least one class, because the district's policy calls for teachers to fail students who miss more than 30 classes in a year-long course, and more than 10 in a grading period.
So how did students who missed so many classes end up with diplomas? Records show that those students received passing marks, and some, who were on the verge of failure, were put in credit-recovery courses. The after-school sessions are designed to give students a second chance. But many were enrolled in credit-recovery while at the same time taking the same courses during the regular school day and failing in them, according to the records provided to The Post. One teacher said this undermined his effort to get students to show up for his class.
The emails shared with The Post raise other questions about accounting for missing assignments.
In January 2017, an email sent from Reeves to Ballou staffers included a presentation about changes in grading policies. It instructed teachers to enter "50M" in their online grade books when students missed assignments: "Missing grades should be marked as '50M' (Missing)."
But according to Brokenborough and the school district's grading policy, entering an M in the grade book signals that the student is out for a medical reason. The mark would allow students to miss assignments without hurting their final grades. Brokenborough emailed teachers telling them to disregard Reeves's grading instruction because it conflicted with school district policy; she copied Wilson on her note. She later told a labor-relations official that she believed the directive was an effort to inflate grades.
"The young scholars at Ballou should not be the recipients of grade inflation," Brokenborough said in a March 30 email. "These students are very intelligent and are capable of academic achievement without the expectations being lowered due to their socioeconomic status."
Reeves did not respond to inquiries about the presentation. D.C. Public Schools spokeswoman Kristina Saccone said the grade-book issue is one of many the school district is investigating.
"We realize there are a number of outstanding questions about what happened at Ballou, and we take them very seriously," Saccone wrote in an email.
At Ballou, Brokenborough and Brian Butcher, a government teacher, said administrators sometimes tried to press teachers into giving makeup packets to chronically absent students.
Brokenborough said that during her first semester at the school in 2015, a young woman she did not recognize came to her class asking whether she could get a makeup packet to recoup her grade. The student had not once shown up for the class. Brokenborough refused, even after an administrator came pleading the student's case, the former Ballou teacher said.
Butcher said several students approached him a week before graduation, imploring him to give them makeup work so they could pass his government course. Butcher said that when he refused, an assistant principal told him the students would be enrolled in credit-recovery classes — even though there was just one week left in the school year. Many of the students who failed his class ended up earning diplomas. Butcher, who was fired after the school year ended, said administrators cited low performance for his firing, but he said the real reasons were that he had raised concerns and was involved with the union. He has filed a grievance contesting his firing.
"What was going on at Ballou is educational malfeasance," Butcher said. "It's a wrongdoing at levels that are hard to even explain."
But Reeves, the principal, disputed that administrators had pressured teachers to pass students who were failing and said she never used low evaluation marks to punish teachers for speaking up. She said she gave teachers autonomy to give grades as they saw fit.
"The message has always been, 'Hold kids accountable. Educate them, teach them, and if kids don't meet the expectation, then there's consequences,' " Reeves said.
She and Ballou teachers expressed concern about the effect that the allegations are having on school morale and on the students, who worry that the news will imperil their college prospects and will erase the hard work educators have done.
"We're working to be better," junior Shae'Lynn Ames said. "Are my straight A's fake?"
Tiffany Pyen, who arrived at Ballou in August to teach psychology, said she knows that many of her students face steep challenges outside the classroom. She said she agonizes over when to put her foot down and when to give leeway, being aware that students might be distracted because they are hungry, or late because they are in foster care and living in chaotic group homes.
"It's complicated. I wish I had an answer," Pyen said. "It's not just that the student doesn't want to do work."
Perry Stein contributed to this report.