Litzi Valdivia-Cazzol was the valedictorian of Ballou High School’s Class of 2017. She is a presidential scholar at the University of the District of Columbia. Mark Hecker, a former DC Social Worker of the Year, is the executive director of Reach Incorporated, a nonprofit that supports teens, including many at Ballou, in becoming elementary school literacy tutors and children’s book authors.
Ballou High School made the news recently, and it wasn't for positive reasons. A significant portion of the graduates from the Class of 2017 — a class that was celebrated for its 100 percent college-acceptance rate — received diplomas despite high numbers of absences from school, as first reported by WAMU and NPR.
Ask members of the Ballou community what others think of them, and the answers come quickly. They recognize that people generally think little of the students. They know that many expect failure. To many recent graduates and their parents, the recent reporting felt like another attack on the students, the school and the education provided there.
High levels of absenteeism are simply a symptom. The attention-grabbing headlines also ignore D.C. Public Schools policy — the so-called 80/20 rule — that makes missing one or two classes almost equivalent to missing an entire day of school.
Students at Ballou, in Congress Heights, regularly confront the structural racism and systemic oppression that have long made academic success more difficult for students east of the District’s Anacostia River.
Rather than doubting recent graduates and the teachers who have supported their growth, we have to ask why young people are missing so much school. Often, absences happen because teens are carrying significant additional responsibilities outside their schoolwork. The lack of affordable child care in the District often means parents must rely on teenage children to help in raising younger siblings. Sometimes, this leaves Ballou students responsible for getting siblings to school each day. How would you choose between supervising your child and going to work so you can feed and house them?
Additionally, there is a teacher crisis in urban high schools. As reported this year, the last time Ballou was in the news, schools that require the most support often face difficulty filling teaching positions. This is a national problem, not specific to Ballou. Would you attend class if you didn't have a permanent teacher for a full year?
Finally, many members of the Ballou community are in crisis, facing housing instability, food insecurity and trauma associated with chronic neighborhood violence. Can we expect teachers and administrators to deal with the challenges associated with these realities?
So, who is ultimately responsible for ensuring that Ballou’s students can come to school each day ready to learn? Do we believe that to be the responsibility of just the students, teachers and administrators? Or does our community also carry some responsibility for the challenges?
Last summer, many members of the Class of 2017 smiled as the media celebrated our school's 100 percent college-acceptance rate. However, we saw no member of the Ballou community who assumed it was a "mission accomplished" moment.
Anyone involved in the school knows that although progress has been made, the journey is far from over. The miracle story was always a narrative constructed by others, not by us. But the graduates were proud to be thought worthy of celebration, to be respected. It is without doubt that Ballou has taken important steps in recent years. School improvement is a long and complex process, and Ballou’s progress deserves recognition.
It is naive to assume that students would have been better off had they been forced to spend additional time in high school. We have created a world in which teens must focus on survival, and then we act surprised when delayed gratification and long-term planning aren’t central to all the decisions they make.
Great things come from Ballou. Members of the Class of 2017 won competitive scholarships, became published authors and guest-lectured at universities. Their drive is impressive, and their resilience is inspiring. Many of the teachers, staff and administrators at Ballou are incredibly supportive. Those who stay give much to try to ensure student success. And many graduates are succeeding, even though college is seemingly impossible to afford.
But to turn around a school, we need more from the rest of the community. Students must trust that caring adults will do what is necessary to address poverty, joblessness, housing instability, food insecurity and community violence. Ballou students want to be able to show up to school every day and focus on the future. But they need you to create a world where that can happen.
Perhaps we should focus less on student absences at Ballou and ask why the rest of D.C.’s adults haven’t shown up.