D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) exercised her control over city public schools late last week with her first-ever veto, shooting down emergency legislation that would allow students who didn’t meet attendance requirements this school year to advance to the next level if they fulfilled other criteria.
Last month, the D.C. Council overwhelmingly passed the School Promotion and Graduation Fairness Emergency Act, introduced by council members David Grosso (I-At Large), chair of the council’s education committee, and Robert White (D-At Large). All council members but Brandon Todd (D-Ward 4), Bowser’s ally and successor, voted in favor of legislation affecting nearly 30 students this past academic year.
This development, coming less than a day before the start of the council’s summer recess, caused a stir among students, residents and community leaders.
“Some people don’t need to miss so many days, but life happens,” said Jalyn Permenter, 17, a senior at Ballou Senior High School in Southeast.
Jalyn said the fallout over the dismal attendance records of the 2017 Ballou graduates created a series of events that incited frustration about how Ballou students are stigmatized.
“You might not have a way to get the [necessary] documents. If you’re sick with a fever or something, or even got pink eye, they expect you to sit in a hospital just to get a paper that says you can’t come to school,” Jalyn, 17, said.
“Some people don’t have the support system to get to the hospitals. A few people had children and they had to stay home to take care of them when they got sick because they can’t afford day care,” Jalyn, a Northeast resident, said.
Bowser disagreed with that popular viewpoint, writing in a June 12 letter to D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D) that summer school, credit recovery, and Opportunity Academies provide ample space for the 26 seniors reportedly affected by the veto a chance to master the material. In the letter, she also said that, in the wake of March’s attendance scandal, the chancellor’s office worked to uphold the “District’s long-standing laws.”
D.C. public school attendance policy counts a student as “legally present” if they’re in school for 80 percent of the day.
For excused absences, students must submit a doctor’s note or other valid documentation. Five or more absences in a single advisory warrant a grade reduction for classes affected. Secondary grade-level students accumulating 30 or more absences during the school year will receive a failing grade for the courses missed.
After reports and audits this year determined that a slew of D.C. schools doctored attendance records to boost graduation data, school officials revealed that less than half of the city’s seniors were on track to graduate. Data recently collected by D.C. Public Schools showed that nearly 60 percent of students graduated this past school year, compared to 73 percent in the previous year.
Months into the 2017-18 school year, D.C. public school attendance officials ramped up enforcement, a process that some students said revealed inconsistencies in data collection.
“The schools have attendance people who don’t do their job,” said Ballou senior Amyah Nelson as she bemoaned what she described as unfair treatment of Yetunde Reeves, the principal ousted not long after news of attendance discrepancies surfaced.
“They have to put in the excused absence notes in for school records and many don’t do that,” said Amyah, 16, a Southeast resident. “We should judge students by their academics; the work they do and the grades they get. It should be about how they perform in school.”
Given the timing of Bowser’s veto, it’s been said that the D.C. Council won’t attempt to overturn it. By the time the council returns in the fall, the next school year, and implementation of the attendance policy, would be well underway.
Despite the pushback against Bowser’s recent moves — rooted in some public disdain for mayoral control of the schools — some people support her recent decision, championing it as an attempt to uphold some consistency in students’ lives and academic careers.
“The mayor’s right. It’s not fair for the students who do all of the right things that another student who does half as good or bad gets the same reward,” said Sandra Seegars, an activist of 30 years who lives in Congress Heights. “Students should try harder and do better to get the same rewards. The schools should keep better records, but they could only do so much if the child doesn’t come to school. If you don’t come to school and do the makeup work, this is what happens.”