D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson. (Astrid Riecken/For The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

The press of other workaday news stories, plus added reports of White House deviltry, overshadow the scandal brewing in the public school system of our nation’s capital. The schools story ought to occupy the minds of everyone who professes to care about the future of the District.

The facts, laid out this week in an email from D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D), capture the scope of the offense, as documented in a Nov. 28 report, “What Really Happened at Ballou, the D.C. High School Where Every Senior Got Into College,” by WAMU and NPR.

“Of the students enrolled as seniors at Ballou [Senior High] last year, 164 received diplomas. However, half of those graduates were truant more than three months of school, unexcused. Twenty-percent were truant more than half the school year. One student missed over 150 days, but graduated,” Mendelson wrote.

Wait, there’s more.

“Numerous teachers as well as students,” wrote the council chairman, “have said that teachers felt pressure to pass chronically absent students. If teachers pushed back, they might be given poor evaluations, putting their jobs at risk.”

Ballou’s principal, since reassigned to the central office, says the truancy data is misleading because the district’s attendance policy requires that the school mark students absent if they miss more than 20 percent of a day. But Mendelson, a veteran city lawmaker with a reputation for no high jinks or showboating, said the system of evaluations and pay bonuses incentivizes social promotion. “Two months before graduation,” Mendelson discovered, “only 57 students were on track to graduate. But in June, 164 received diplomas.”

To compound the scandal, it turns out that D.C. school officials had been made aware of the alarming situation months before the story hit the airwaves.

Post writers Moriah Balingit and Andrew Ba Tran reported this month that a group of teachers met with school officials to call attention to the crisis the day after Ballou graduates received their diplomas in June. The Post also reported that a teacher at the school followed up in an email to Chancellor Antwan Wilson a month after the meeting.

Wilson never responded.

The chancellor, well after the fact, acknowledged at a council hearing that a teacher had tried to alert him to the Ballou situation. But he said he didn’t look into it until the WAMU and NPR report aired. Explained Wilson lamely, “We know that there was a Ballou teacher who in August complained through the grievance process,” but “our team, prioritizing impact, had not gotten to it.”

That is unfortunate. Had Wilson and his team at D.C. Public Schools headquarters gotten off their duffs and responded, they would have learned that Ballou is not an isolated problem.

“Last year,” Mendelson said, “64% of the entire [Ballou] school was truant 21 or more days. But at H.D. Woodson [High School], 76% was truant 21 days or more days. The number was 54% at Anacostia, 40% at Cardozo, 45% at Eastern and 48% at Roosevelt.”

Mr. Chancellor, you have a systemwide problem on your hands.

And it seems to be a corollary to a deficiency I wrote about two years ago: The four-year DCPS graduation rate — 58.3 percent — was one of the lowest in the nation in 2015. The rate for black males was even lower at 48 percent. Worse still, 591 DCPS students in 2014 were dropouts. Several high schools with graduation rates of 60 percent or less were dubbed “dropout factories.”

Well, has current school leadership addressed that problem with suspect graduation rates? As Mendelson and a handful of city public officials who are not mindless DCPS cheerleaders are quick to point out, inflating graduation rates only cheats students. What else is it but cheating when we promote and hand out diplomas to students who don’t show up for school and who don’t qualify to walk across the stage on graduation day?

How does that enable a student to acquire skills and land a job in this increasingly competitive world? How does pushing out students who haven’t learned actually prepare them for the challenges and responsibilities of adulthood?

My late parents, my two siblings and I are products of the D.C. public school system. Our schools — once legally and de facto racially segregated — lacked some of the resources found in majority white schools. But the value of our diplomas was not degraded — not at Dunbar Senior High, alma mater of my mom, my sister and me. Social promotions and inflated graduation rates were inventions of the future. Poverty was no excuse for not learning. Desire mattered. So, too, achievement, regardless of the personal challenges some of us faced in getting to school. We were still held to high standards.

Our principals and teachers did not enable failure: They demanded we meet expectations, a crappy world notwithstanding. Hard-working parents would have been heartbroken if we had betrayed them by cutting school most of the year.

The scandal would have been to throw away the opportunity to get an education — and the failure of our principal and teachers to provide one.

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