April 24, 2018

D.C.’s Graduation Crisis: What’s Next for Students?

By Avery Kleinman

Leaders of local community colleges and universities along with a city official and education reporter discuss what DC’s graduation crisis means for unprepared students entering college or the workforce.

Leaders of local community colleges and universities along with a city official and education reporter discuss what DC’s graduation crisis means for unprepared students entering college or the workforce.

Last year, WAMU and NPR released a joint report that revealed systematic and widespread violations of the attendance and graduation policies at Ballou High School –a scandal that was later revealed to be far more widespread throughout District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS). Students who missed as much as three months of school were passing and graduating, and teachers were encouraged by administrators to misuse programs like credit recovery to ensure students moved up.

The report sent shockwaves through D.C., and in the months that followed, several other controversies rocked the city’s schools. Then-Chancellor Antwan Wilson, who had been in the role a year, resigned amid revelations that he had used his position to bypass the school selection lottery system for his daughter, and a recent Washington Post investigation and separate audit revealed DCPS employees who lived outside of the District were routinely committing residency fraud and enrolling their kids within the city without making tuition payments.

Many questions emerged from these scandals, and at a recent event at the University of District of Columbia (UDC), a panel of local leaders and an audience of stakeholders gathered to tackle one of them: If kids are being handed diplomas without having earned them, what happens when they move onto higher education or the working world?  What’s next for students?

Listen to the conversation:

The reporter behind the WAMU investigation, Kate McGee, launched the evening with an overview of her findings.

“There was a culture of passing and graduating students by whatever means necessary,” she said. “This was a much bigger issue than just Ballou.”

Along with McGee, other panelists included Pat McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, a private women’s college that educates many local public school graduates; UDC’s Chief Community College Officer Tony E. Summers; and D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman, who focuses on workforce development in the District.

They agreed that many graduates of D.C. Public Schools start community college or enter the workforce lacking so-called “soft skills,” like punctuality and other non-academic skills that are important both for success in college and a professional environment.

“When I read about the attendance challenges, I said, aha! I know why we’re struggling in the first year, because if a student earns a diploma without coming to class, she may think she doesn’t have to go to class in college either,” said McGuire, whose private women’s college aims to bring struggling students up to college level work and launch them on the path to success. “Guess what, we are serious as a heart attack about class attendance in college.”

Listen to Pat McGuire’s reaction to the WAMU/NPR story:

Like Trinity, UDC enrolls many DCPS graduates.

“Students come to us every day with challenges,” said Summers, the UDC administrator. “Even before the news broke with regards to the District and the public education system, we were built to meet every student where they are.”

Listen to Tony E. Summers reaction to the WAMU/NPR story:

As Chair of the Committee on Labor and Workforce Development on the D.C. Council, Silverman said that she would like to see the city develop more diverse options for students who may neither want nor be prepared to earn a four-year college degree.

“We need to get students excited about what they can do with their degrees. That’s the missing link,” Silverman said. “We need to have partnerships with our big employers. Students get excited when they see the job possibilities.”

Listen to Elissa Silverman on career training:

Also in attendance was Tony Johnson, the Dean of Workforce Development and Lifelong Learning at UDC’s Community College. He brought up the importance of professional development for teachers.

“Teachers are graduating from schools of education throughout the country and I think we need to do some leveling,” he said. “Once schools are hired by DC Public Schools, I think we need to do some very intensive professional development so that all teachers are all teaching with the same level of rigor.”

Trelaunda Becket with the Student Development and Success office at UDC agreed that teachers, in collaboration with parents and administrators, have a responsibility toward students.

“We look at the student from a holistic perspective,” she said. “I’m from the ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ philosophy. That’s what I practice. It takes all of us to do that, it should not just be one individual, and sometimes we’re all that the student has.”

Those most directly and immediately affected by the issues up for discussion are the students themselves. Wilson High school student Maya Wilson was one of several who weighed in.

“What I would really like to see DCPS doing is listening to students and faculty, because that is not something I feel like I really ever see,” Wilson said.

Listen to high school student Maya Wilson’s comments:

The important role of parents was a central part of the conversation, too.

One DCPS parent, Kay Harrison, a parent living in Ward 4, was in attendance. She criticized the school system for a lack of transparency and responsiveness.

“I’ve heard that students and faculty are not heard, but more importantly the parents are not heard,” she said. “In order to fix the system, you have to be willing to accept constructive criticism. And I don’t get that from the central office.”

Listen to parent Kay Harrison’s comments:

The panelists and audience members agreed that the solution cannot be left up to DCPS alone.

“There’s too much stratification,” McGuire said. “I don’t think there’s enough conversation between college and high school administrators, and there should be.”

Reporter Kate McGee, who is moving to Chicago to cover education for WBEZ, agreed. She said that if she were to return in a year, she would hope to see a more comprehensive, multi-agency approach toward education.

“I think I would hope to see that there is more of a focus on wrap around services and school culture improvement,” she said. “Not just leaving it up to DCPS –having the full community focused on public education.”

Listen to reporter Kate McGee’s hopes for DC’s education system:

The event was supported in part by American Graduate: Let’s Make It Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.


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