Every one of the 190 seniors at Ballou High applied to college this year, a first for the long-struggling public school in a poor neighborhood of Southeast Washington.
Randy Sams, 18, applied to at least 14 colleges and said he has been accepted at 12, including Penn State and Virginia State universities. He’s waiting to hear from his top choice, Temple, a public university in Philadelphia. The deciding factor will be financial aid offers. Sams will be the first in his family to attend college.
Ayanna Rouse, 18, also applied to 14 colleges. She committed to the public Radford University in Virginia. She’ll be the first in her family to attend a four-year university.
Ballou ranks among the city’s lowest-performing high schools on core measures. Its graduation rate last school year, 57 percent, was second-lowest among regular schools in the D.C. Public Schools system, behind Anacostia High’s rate of 42 percent. (That comparison doesn’t include alternative schools.) Last school year, 3 percent of Ballou students tested met reading standards on citywide standardized exams. Almost none met math standards.
Despite these challenges, administrators said it was the Class of 2017 that decided all seniors would apply to college. The students themselves set the ambitious goal last spring. Administrators say they never doubted the students would meet it.
“There are some schools and communities where college is an automatic next step. There is no celebration,” said Yetunde Reeves, Ballou’s principal. “Our kids don’t get that same message. We are trying to create an environment where going to college is what Ballou does as well.”
Erin Bibo, deputy chief of college and career programs for DCPS, said Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, a selective-admissions campus in Northwest, is the only other school in the system in which 100 percent of its seniors have applied to college.
Ballou, with about 930 students, is in one of the poorest wards in the city, and every student qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch. Educators say that getting some students to go to class is a struggle. Attrition is high: Many who enter as freshmen drop out along the way to graduation.
Some, including Sams, hesitated to enroll at Ballou because of its reputation as a troubled school. Ballou was made famous by Ron Suskind’s 1998 book “A Hope in the Unseen,” which chronicled the journey of a student overcoming challenges as he traveled from Ballou to the Ivy League.
But Reeves said that she and her staff are working to change the image of Ballou by raising expectations. Many students have parents who did not go to college.
Now, these students are aiming for college. Many have applied to the city’s public University of the District of Columbia. Others have targeted historically black schools such as Tennessee State University and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University.
Ballou attributes part of its success this year to Jamanda Porter, a college and career coordinator, who has been at the school for almost two years. She works with every senior, even those who think they want to join the military or start working right away, to apply to at least one college.
“We are meeting our students where they are, but we are pushing them to higher expectations,” Porter said.
For years, schools and nonprofit organizations across the District have devoted resources to getting students not only to graduate from high school but also apply to college. The DC College Access Program, for example, raises millions of dollars for scholarships, and it funds a college counselor in schools and holds college-orientation seminars for families.
Bibo said schools with college readiness programs sometimes don’t coordinate efforts between groups to help every student. Porter’s job is to coordinate the efforts of programs such as DC-CAP with the school’s academic counselor and others focused on graduation and college readiness. Porter also meets with students individually to come up with a post-graduation plan.
Only two other schools in the system, Anacostia and H.D. Woodson High, have a full-time college and career coordinator, but officials announced last month that the system will fund a coordinator in six others starting next school year.
Porter and others at Ballou said some of the students who applied to college are struggling to graduate on time, but the staff is committed to helping them finish and come up with a plan for once the students get their diploma.
Assistant Principal Shamele Straughter said that even if they do not end up enrolling in college, applying sends a message to the students about their education options.
“Now they have choice. That is the beauty of this entire thing — you get to pick,” Straughter said. “I am excited about seeing what the acceptance rate is going to be.”
As of last week, Sams, who plans to major in computer engineering, had an 86 percent acceptance rate.
He said he never doubted that he would go to college. Sams is the youngest of four children in his family. While his mother is excited about all of his college offers, Sams said she also is waiting to see what will happen. He said she is mindful that one of his older brothers was also accepted into college but ended up not enrolling.
“She might think that’s what I am going to do,” Sams said. But he said he will definitely enroll.
“I always wanted to be a standout from the rest and not be a statistic,” Sams said. “I also wanted to prove to my family that this is what we could do.”