Things seemed to be looking up for Ballou High School. A $142 million building opened in 2015 — a building that symbolized a fresh start for the historically low-performing school in Southeast Washington. Test scores showed a slight increase.
And in March 2017, national news organizations swarmed the campus as it celebrated every member of the senior class applying to college.
Then came the scandal.
A sharply critical report released last week by the city found that Ballou administrators told teachers that a high percentage of their students were not expected to pass and encouraged them to provide makeup work and extra credit to students, no matter how much school they missed. The result: Some students received diplomas when they had not earned them.
But in interviews this week, Ballou students, teachers and parents said that the dysfunctional school depicted in that report scarcely resembles the school they know. They insist that the problems uncovered at Ballou exist at other schools — something the school district report confirmed.
"Students from other schools are now picking on Ballou, saying we are stupid and illiterate," Shae'Lynn Ames, a junior, said. "As soon as we do something good, something negative comes out against us."
The nine students, teachers and parents who were interviewed took particular exception to the decision to remove the school's principal, Yetunde Reeves.
Reeves, they said, instilled a renewed sense of pride on campus, making the school seem like a place where students with challenging lives can escape and be teenagers. Parents said this makes the harsh spotlight on Ballou all the more demoralizing.
"These kids were prospering. The school was going in a great direction," said LaTonya Ames, Shae'Lynn's mother. Six of Ames's children graduated from Ballou, and she said she sat on a parent committee that vetted Reeves before she was appointed principal. "The school was just getting back to what a school was supposed to be."
Five teachers said Reeves encouraged them to work with students individually, helping them learn even if the typical classroom structure did not work for them. Sometimes, that meant meeting with students during lunch or free periods, or giving them an extra project.
Two Ballou students were shot and killed this academic year, one teacher noted. So it was only natural, he said, that classmates would miss school while they grieved or require additional help to complete their work.
"I feel like we're now in a culture where we're forced to fail students, where we used to be able to provide solutions," said Tiffany Kidd, a math educator at the school. "There's been anger and frustration."
Attendance and graduation records that were documented in the investigation commissioned by the Office of the State Superintendent of Education were damning, and clearly demonstrated that district policy was not followed: About 35 percent of Ballou's 2017 graduates missed most of the school year. D.C. schools policy dictates that students should fail a class if they are absent 30 times.
But the report also showed that Ballou was not alone, and other neighborhood schools where large portions of the students come from low-income backgrounds also graduated students with dismal attendance rates.
Because of the investigation released last week — and because of a joint report by WAMU and NPR in November that brought to light the issues at the school — Ballou quickly turned into a symbol of the failures of school reform in the District.
"Why aren't other principals being removed? Why only Dr. Reeves?" Tatiana Robinson, a junior, said. "She helped students believe we have a fighting chance."
Reeves, who contends that she never pressured teachers to pass students, said in an interview Friday that the attendance figures are more complicated than the report can convey. Ballou students, she said, face more challenges than typical high school students and can find it difficult to be in school for each period of the day. In the District, students who miss 20 percent or more of the school day are marked absent for the entire day.
According to Reeves, some Ballou students have to drop off and pick up siblings at their schools. Others leave school early to commute to afternoon jobs, while others care for ailing parents and grandparents. The school experienced a high turnover of teachers last year, and administrators struggled to get students to classes taught by substitute teachers.
"You can't go to Ballou and just close the door and teach. You have to deal with attendance, you have to deal with trauma, you have to deal with kids who are behind," Reeves said. "Our kids do require a different level of effort. For me, it was about creating an environment where kids felt connected to the building and they felt there were people in the building who supported them."
Teacher Shajena Cartagena said that a homeless student in her first-period class drops off younger siblings at different schools and takes multiple buses to get to school. The student wants to complete her work, and Cartagena is willing to meet with her during lunch and free periods to help her catch up, but is forced to fail the student because of absences.
"I'm feeling disheartened," Cartagena said. "It feels like the pendulum has swung to accountability without understanding the social-emotional learning they need."
Reeves and the teachers who were interviewed said that this personalized teaching has not resulted in less academic rigor.
"Students not being in class was an issue, but students not mastering material was not an issue," Adam Evans, a history teacher, said.
The students who were interviewed said that classmates were devastated when they learned Reeves would not be returning to school and angry they did not have a voice in her fate.
Reeves said she still receives messages from students asking for help with college applications and checking in to see how she is doing.
"It's been validating to know that I have had an impact on them. I'm proud of the work that I've done," Reeves said. "I love Ballou, and it's like home base for me. It felt like part of my life had just shifted overnight."