Skip to main content.

Why aren’t students in Washington, D.C. coming to school?

Why aren’t students in Washington, D.C. coming to school?

Picture of Jonetta Barras
[Photo by Ping News via Flickr.]

In November 2017, news broke that the District of Columbia had permitted hundreds of students attending Ballou Senior High School in the city’s Ward 8 to graduate that year in violation of certain laws and rules. The students had either not attended school the requisite number of days or the level of their academic achievement failed to meet the established standard. In some cases, there were students who had both excessive absences and failing grades.

That scandal rocked the city. Eventually an independent audit was commissioned. It revealed the problem was more widespread than originally suspected. There had been 937 students at traditional and charter schools out of a graduating class of 2,758 who should not have received their diplomas.

Interestingly, despite the shock expressed by many elected officials, a few of them knew the depth of the problem even before media reports. They had tracked test scores and attendance records. How, they asked themselves, could a school like Ballou graduate record numbers of students when most were performing well below the level of proficiency?  

District officials went into crisis mode while pointing accusatory fingers at each other and questioning the wisdom of the decision in 2007 to turn over control of public education to the mayor. The 13-member DC Council got behind a proposal to create an independent advisory board that would set data collection policies and oversee actual data collection. That solution was flawed, however. It sidestepped the larger, more significant question: What was fueling chronic absenteeism?

Without answering that fundamental question, it seemed unlikely elected officials or school managers could transform the system and the lives of the students they had pledged to serve.

Unsurprisingly, many of those habitually truant students in DC’s public schools were from poor or working-class families and were also burdened by issues associated with trauma or Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Dr. Christina Bethell, director of the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, has noted that “ACEs and other traumatic events don’t just affect an individual child — families, neighborhoods and communities all bear the brunt of these difficult circumstances.”

Trauma — dealing with it and attempting to manage it — has become a way of life for many students in public schools. Consider that in 2015, an independent survey found that 40 percent of D.C. high school students reported seeing or hearing violence and abuse during the prior 12 months. Equally troubling, or perhaps underscoring those findings, the Metropolitan Police Department reported that in 2015, it received nearly 35,000 domestic violence-related calls — an increase of 6 percent over 2014.

That problem of violence has persisted. For example, as of May 31, 2018, there were 64 homicides in the District of Columbia — a 47 percent increase over the same period in 2017. Nearly half of those 64 murders took place in Ward 8 neighborhoods — the same area where Ballou Senior High School is located.

“Trauma can affect children’s language development, inhibit their academic achievement and make it difficult to form relationships with both peers and adults,” said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children’s Law Center in Washington, D.C. “Traumatized children may develop hyper-vigilance, emotional withdrawal or dissociation, and spend the school day focusing solely on their safety — making it impossible to learn.”

In the nation’s capital, thousands of children suffering trauma-related experiences are squeezed into a handful of communities. The National Survey of Children’s Health, released in 2017, found that in D.C. as much as 36 percent of children 12 to 17 experienced two or more ACEs. (Some studies have placed the number as high as 47 percent.) Nationally, less than 30 percent of children experience two or more ACEs. Further, researchers have concluded that children ages 6 to 17 who experience two or more ACEs are twice as likely to be disengaged from school compared to peers who have no ACEs.  

D.C. reportedly has begun to focus on creating trauma-informed schools. But how effective has its effort been, and equally important, what have been the measurable results?

In 2015, the D.C. Office of the State Superintendent helped support six days of training where 147 individuals or stakeholders were present, according to a spokesperson for the agency. Contrast that attendance with this fact: D.C. public schools employ as many as 7,500 individuals, working as teachers, classroom aides, counselors, and social workers, among other capacities.

Further, if chronic absenteeism is one partial gauge for evaluating effectiveness, then clearly there are problems with the current system. Without intensifying its efforts in this area — reducing overall trauma in the lives of children and creating schools capable of achieving a similar mission — it seems probable that another graduation scandal is in the wings.

“I believe we would have faster school reform if we had more programs that dealt with trauma,” said Sandalow of the Children’s Law Center. More critically, the failure to effectively address the issue of trauma means that many students may not receive the true help they need to live whole, healthy and prosperous lives beyond that diploma.

Jonetta Rose Barras is an author and Washington, D.C.-based freelance journalist.

[Photo by Ping News via Flickr.]

Leave A Comment


Follow Us



CHJ Icon