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Nearly 60 percent of D.C. seniors graduated on time this month

Graduating seniors at Ballou High School in Washington on June 11.
Graduating seniors at Ballou High School in Washington on June 11. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Nearly 60 percent of seniors in the District’s traditional public school system earned their diplomas on time this month, according to graduation figures released by city officials Wednesday.

But the official graduation rate is not tallied until the fall, and city officials said they expect the current rate of 59 percent — there are 3,550 seniors — to rise a few points as more students earn their diplomas after completing summer courses. The school system still needs to determine whether about 670 students who are considered part of the senior class dropped out or transferred to another school system. The results of that review could lift the final graduation rate more.

The rate last year was 73 percent — a record high for the city. The latest figures for the Class of 2018 suggest the District could be bracing for a dip, though perhaps not as steep as initially feared.

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Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) and other city officials have said they expected the graduation rate to decrease this year after a city-commissioned investigation in January uncovered that 1 in 3 graduates in 2017 received their diplomas despite missing too many classes or improperly taking makeup classes.

Following those revelations, the school system said it cracked down — most notably, it started enforcing long-ignored attendance policies — to ensure that every senior receiving a diploma in 2018 meets city graduation requirements.

“What superintendent or chancellor would not say that they want nothing less than a 100 percent graduation rate?” said Amanda Alexander, interim chancellor of D.C. Public Schools.

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“I realize that’s not possible at this time, of course, but I am looking forward to higher graduation rates in the coming years as a result of our disciplined work around attendance and enforcing those policies,” Alexander said. She also cited efforts to work “really hard with students one-on-one to ensure that they are on track for graduation from the first day of their ninth-grade year.”

This is the first year the school system has released the status of the graduation rate before final results are calculated, making comparisons to earlier years difficult.

The D.C. Public Charter School Board said Wednesday that 72 percent of seniors attending charter schools were on track to graduate as of April. Although charter schools account for close to half of D.C.’s public student population, they graduate far fewer students than the traditional public system: There are 1,228 seniors enrolled in charters, about one-third the number in the traditional system. That is because charter school enrollment is clustered in the lower grades.

D.C. Public Schools released a batch of data in April showing the status of the senior class at the end of the school year’s third quarter. At that time, 46 percent of seniors were on track to graduate, and 21 percent were “moderately off track,” meaning they were failing at least one required course but could still earn necessary credits through credit recovery or summer school. Credit recovery is an initiative that allows students to retake a class they previously failed.

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The school system said this week that 415 students who were considered “moderately off track” in April received their diplomas in June. Forty students who were “significantly off track” graduated.

Alexander said the students who made it to the graduation stage worked hard to recoup missing credits and genuinely earned their diplomas. Many of the off-track students enrolled in credit-recovery courses to graduate on time.

That suggests seniors who took credit-recovery courses did not have serious attendance problems this year because students cannot enroll in the program if excessive absences caused them to fail a class. But attendance was at the heart of the January investigation: It found that students who missed large swaths of the school year still passed classes.

“Our students demonstrated to us their ability to rise to the high expectations that we set for them,” Alexander said. “They like that we have high expectations for them. They like knowing that we expect them to go to college and do great things beyond high school. They want us to have the same expectations that folks have for the kids in Montgomery ­County.”

The D.C. Council passed emergency legislation last week allowing high school seniors who missed more than six weeks of class to receive their diplomas by discounting absences from the first three quarters of the school year.

The school system estimates this would allow about 25 more seniors to graduate.

But Bowser, whose signature is necessary for the reprieve to go into effect, has said she opposes it. She said last week she is considering her options, and her office said Wednesday there is no update on her decision.

At Banneker High, a selective-application school, 99 percent of seniors graduated this month — the highest rate in the District. The lowest rates belonged to Anacostia (42 percent), Coolidge (44 percent) and Ballou (45 percent) high schools. Those schools have some students who could qualify to graduate in the summer.

The application high schools posted the highest graduation rates. Schools with high concentrations of poverty, including Ballou and Roosevelt, had the lowest rates. These schools, however, have a large number of students who would be able to graduate in five years.