There is a sad twist to the District’s Ballou High School scandal not addressed in the reports issued by D.C. education officials and their consultant, Alvarez & Marsal. It concerns something called summer melt, a national problem that has never gotten much attention.
Several scholars, particularly Karen Arnold, Benjamin L. Castleman and Lindsay C. Page, have discovered that as many as 20 percent of high school graduates signed up for college don’t appear at their chosen campus in the fall. In their 2014 book on the subject, Castleman and Page said the students’ desire to further their education is often overcome by “the lures of home, staying with a girlfriend or boyfriend, receiving a steady paycheck, and continuing to contribute financially and otherwise to their family.”
The official reports on Ballou’s troubles say much about absenteeism and graduation inflation in many D.C. schools. They are the most achingly honest self-confessions by a school district I have ever read, very different from the district’s coverup of massive answer-sheet tampering seven years ago.
But the reports do not mention that Ballou last year also had what may be the worst case of summer melt ever.
WAMU-NPR reporter Kate McGee, who exposed the absences and graduation rule violations at Ballou, also noted the school congratulated itself on having all of its graduates accepted at college last spring. Then, she checked with the University of the District of Columbia last fall and discovered that only 16 of the 183 Ballou graduates admitted to the college had shown up. D.C. records show that number reached 22 by November. There is no indication the others enrolled anywhere else.
Did Ballou officials get many of those students to sign up for UDC just to make their school look good? I don’t know. But they clearly did not devote enough effort to making them ready to carry out their college plans.
This issue deserves more notice at a time when college-going has become a key measure of U.S. high school success or failure. The Joyce Foundation released a report last month on academic gains in Chicago, once labeled the worst school district in America by then-U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett. The foundation quoted the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research saying that “the share of Chicago Public Schools graduates enrolling in four-year colleges and universities — 44 percent — outpaces that of other urban districts, which range from 23 to 38 percent.”
Those numbers come from the nonprofit National Student Clearinghouse. It has data on 97 percent of students who enroll in four-year colleges and 99 percent of those who enroll in two-year schools. D.C. schools use the clearinghouse, but not well enough to prevent embarrassments such as Ballou.
Many educators have been working for years to make college a reality for students such as those at Ballou. They realize that even top graduates, if they come from impoverished families, may need help with the financial and personal strains of higher education.
The nonprofit District of Columbia College Access Program (DC-CAP), which provides college counseling for the D.C. public schools, does much to combat summer melt. It has representatives on 20 college campuses, partnerships for summer text messaging and 1,300 scholarships each year for D.C. students.
Some organizations have gone further. The Posse Foundation brings groups of students together in high school and has them meet regularly to prepare for college. Then, it arranges for those groups to be admitted to colleges with scholarships.
Posse staffers in high school make sure the students are ready to go. College mentors check to see they are okay. The members of the groups meet regularly and support each other. Some charter schools have partnered with colleges in the same way because it helps reduce summer melt to a trickle.
We can’t expect D.C. schools to adopt such measures for all college-bound students. But here’s a suggestion: Why not at least hire some UDC students as research assistants to determine which students admitted there did not show up, what went wrong and what could be done to get them enrolled?