Getting into college is a goal for most young people. Recently, Frank W. Ballou High School, a public school in a low-income community in Washington, D.C. made national headlines due to its 2017 graduating class accomplishing a 100% college acceptance rate. This news shocked many, given reports concerning staff turnover and low test scores in the months prior. I recently attended a celebration and discussion of this exciting achievement, held by the America’s Promise Alliance along with Opportunity Nation and The Urban Alliance. My excitement for these young people was clouded with concern throughout the afternoon as to whether these young people are truly positioned to succeed in the next stages of their lives.
At the event, school administrators highlighted the school’s standards of excellence and rigorous programming, including AP course availability. What was not highlighted were the school’s percentages for grade level proficiency in English Language Arts and Literacy and Mathematics standardized tests, an alarmingly low three percent and zero percent respectively. These percentages were far lower than the District of Columbia Public Schools’ (DCPS) averages of 25 percent and 24 percent in those categories.
Another highlight focused on the fact that about half of the students had filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As an individual from a middle class, single parent household who relied on student aid to make my continuing education possible (as did 85 percent of four-year college students in the United States), I was concerned that the school was celebrating this financial-aid application rate, compared to the likelihood of need for this assistance. Why wasn’t aid application framed as a mandatory component when more students than not will require it to attend any one of the colleges they worked so hard to gain acceptance to?
One panelist voiced his curiosity about tracking the college completion rates of these students, citing the importance of not only the supports which helped them gain their acceptance letters, but the the supports which help ensure they make it to their first day of classes and their college graduations. While we celebrate these exciting acceptance rates, we must also ask if these students are ready to go on to college and what supports could be better provided to ensure that they are more academically, financially and social-emotionally prepared.”
To quote Karen Pittman, president & CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, “Readiness is not a credential like a diploma or a certificate of course completion. It is a state of being and doing, anchored in the confidence of being prepared for what comes next…It is a personal resource that is cultivated with support, that helps young people close those achievement, skill and opportunity gaps that derail them and distress us.” It is our responsibility as individuals in the youth-serving field to ensure that students are not only equipped with the formal credentials that enable them to succeed, but that they are provided with the supports necessary to ensure their later successes. I believe that the administrators at Ballou deserve commendation for their dedication and leadership, and I commend the Ballou graduating class of 2017 and wish them all the best in this exciting stage in their lives.
Erich Martel, notable DCPS teacher of over four decades, wrote a brief but poignant op-ed for The Washington Post closing with a line that could not be said better; “Policies that ignore students’ learning and behavior needs and concentrate low-performing students in a few schools must be changed, not concealed with a gimmick.” I hope that while celebrating accomplishments such as 100% college acceptance rates, we continue to encourage accountability and make sure all necessary structures are in place to not only promote, but ensure the success of these bright, driven young people.
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8/14 Update: A recent article in NPR provides additional detail on how the school and staff supported Ballou students in their quest to go to college. Review the article here.