Statement on behalf of the
American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia
 before the
DC Council Committee on Education
Public Oversight Roundtable on Graduation Rate Accountability

Friday, December 15, 2017
Kendrick D. Holley, Community Engagement Manager

Good afternoon, Councilmember Grosso and members of the Committee. My name is Kendrick Holley and I am the Community Engagement Manager of the American Civil Liberties Union of the District of Columbia (ACLU-DC). I present the following testimony on behalf of our more than 20,000 members in the District of Columbia.

The ACLU-DC is committed to working to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline, safeguard fundamental liberties, eliminate racial disparities, and advocate for transparency and accountability in education.  

First, I’d like to thank Councilmember Grosso and Committee staff for making the effort to get community input on the graduation policy and rate at Ballou Senior High School. Today, I’d like to testify in support of increased transparency and accountability from DC Public Schools and to offer recommendations to address the larger issues around education in the District.

I. Background

On November 28, 2017, an article by WAMU brought into question the integrity of Ballou Senior High School’s graduation numbers and the standards and processes by which students were eligible to graduate.[1] The investigation found that half of the graduating class had more than 3 months of unexcused absences in their last year of school, and that a little over a third of the senior class were actually on track to graduate two months before graduation.[2] This report exposed a long-standing concern that DCPS was not properly equipping its most vulnerable students with the tools necessary to be successful and instead simply shepherding them through the system so that the metrics would reflect success. This is not only dishonest and inappropriate, it is a disservice to the communities DCPS is charged with serving.

II. Ballou’s graduation issue raises significant concerns about accountability and transparency in the system and how DCPS is measuring success

One concern this investigation raises is whether DCPS is more interested in the veneer of success than in actually creating successful students. The positive attention that Ballou Senior High School and DCPS received as a result of the school’s transformative improvement over the last 5 years reflects a community desire to see the District’s students succeed. But a desire for success does not warrant or justify a misrepresentation of facts regarding that progress. The major issue with fabricated evidence and numbers is that it cripples the ability of OSSE, DC Council, and the Mayor’s office from using their resources to accurately address the critical challenges facing our most vulnerable students.

And this is not an issue that is unique to Ballou. It is a system-wide issue that the District must address if we are to honestly move forward and develop the best solutions for our students.

Just earlier this year, it was revealed that DCPS has been engaging in a widespread practice of using unreported suspensions and “do not admit” lists to push students out of the classroom and school building without notice, process, or review, while at the same time reporting that suspension rates had decreased significantly. [3] This reflects a failure of accountability and pulls at the threads of trust between the community and systems that are intended to serve them. What happens, and what has happened here, is that schools prioritize improving their numbers rather than achieving positive student outcomes. The focus should be on what students have gained from their education and what skills they have developed.

The Ballou graduation controversy also highlights the ways in which DCPS and District leaders are failing students who need the most support. Pushing students into college and the workforce without the proper tools to succeed is a disservice to both students and parents who entrust DCPS with preparing them for life outside of school, but the responsibility does not lie with Ballou alone. Ballou has historically had a largely black student body that hails from Ward 8 where residents have been consistently deprived of resources and opportunity. Ward 8 still has the highest rate of unemployment[4] and continues to carry the weight of being overlooked and under resourced. In his interview with Kojo Nnamdi,[5] Chancellor Antwan Wilson rightly identified that many of the students at Ballou were battling conditions of trauma, economic instability, and a lack of resources that contribute to students being unengaged or completely absent from school.

We know that students who are out of school, unengaged, and unaccounted for are much more likely to come into contact with elements of the criminal justice system, further feeding the prison industrial complex and perpetuating the existence of the school-to-prison pipeline. But the answer to the many barriers that students face is to help address them, not to ignore them and usher struggling students along until they can become someone else’s responsibility. Doing so fuels a cycle of poverty, neglect, and economic instability that already disproportionately affects students of color in the District compared to their white counterparts.[6]

Students need meaningful support that is crafted to their experiences, conditions, and capabilities. Missing class and not being engaged in school are symptoms of much larger systemic issues based on racially discriminatory policies that have led to divestment of resources from communities. DCPS should be at the front lines of pushing for better policies and greater resources to help students achieve their potential, and the Mayor and Council must be sensitive to policies outside of the education system (for example, around access to childcare or affordable housing) that have a detrimental effect on students’ ability to be present and engaged in class. Graduating students is rightfully a goal of DCPS, but properly equipping them with resources for success, being amenable to their needs and development, and supporting them through adverse conditions in their lives should be our true focus.

The lack of transparency and accountability throughout DCPS undermines legitimate progress being made to benefit and service students. There are meaningful strides being made at Ballou and other schools that are improving school climate and getting better outcomes for students, and those efforts should continue. Unfortunately, hiding graduation numbers, masking suspensions, and ignoring absences can overshadow real progress and shortchange students in the process.

Along with the importance of good data and transparency, DCPS must be held to accountability measures that ensure that teachers are not being pressured to falsify records at risk to their own jobs, that students are not harshly disciplined without justification, that schools do not mark students unexcused when they’ve actually been excluded, and that the progress that is being made at schools like Ballou is not undermined by the above practices.

III. The ACLU-DC has the following recommendations to improve outcomes for students and increase transparency and accountability:

1. DCPS should continue to focus on improving school climate through its School Climate and Social Emotional Learning office. School climate plays a major part in creating a safe and engaging space for students to focus on learning, and it’s time to make a renewed commitment to retain qualified teachers, address absenteeism and behavior issues through restorative practices, and make meaningful investment in resources that address the barriers students face in being engaged in the classroom.

2. The Administration and Council should reevaluate how we allocate resources in our education budget and beyond. As we look to addressing the root causes of disengagement and absenteeism, we must also look at how money allocated for education is being spent. Are we spending money on development giveaways and subsequently divesting from schools and communities that are devoid of resources? Does the budget prioritize mental health support, social workers, and resources for students who fall behind the curve? Why are we spending significantly more money on policing our schools than we do on social workers and counselors that can address student needs and keep students in class? Does our budget reflect our priorities of ensuring all DCPS students have dedicated teachers for the full length of the school year? These are just some of the questions that must be seriously contended with if there is an expectation of change in culture among underperforming DC Schools that are disproportionately young people of color.

3. There should be a full, independent investigation conducted of the entire DCPS system, and the results of this investigation should be made accessible to the public. Better data collection and increased transparency and accountability must be at the center of any suggested reforms to school policy and practices. Accurate data is critically important to help identify and address problems faced by students. Lack of accurate data prevents DCPS and the public from having a complete picture of what the needs of its students, teachers, and schools are and in turn, prevents the DC Council from making better informed decisions on where to spend resources.

Finally, we must center and elevate the voices of community members, parents, and students in these discussions. Have more roundtables, ask more questions, provide more platforms for those who are most intimately aware of the issues that they face daily. As a part of my job I often hear from students, teachers, and parents about their frustrations with DCPS and the processes that exist. Elevating these voices and building responsive reform around the needs of the community is the best way forward.

Thank you.