What One High School’s Success Can Teach Us About Engaging Students

by Opportunity Nation   •  

“Without access to opportunity, America cannot thrive, cannot innovate and cannot survive. There is a role for everyone to play in a young person’s life.” – Monique Rizer, Executive Director, Opportunity Nation

A high school diploma is the first step in what must be a lifelong journey and love of learning for young professionals to flourish in an ever-changing global economy.

Yesterday, we held the fourth event in our Restoring the American Dream series at Ballou High School in Washington, DC, co-hosted with America’s Promise Alliance and Urban Alliance. “What One High School’s Success Can Teach Us About Engaging Students” focused on the “Our Opportunity Nation” goal to achieve a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 and turnaround all low-performing schools by 2025.

The national on-time graduation rate is currently at 83 percent. However, significant challenges remain to reach the 90 percent goal, especially for students who are from low-income families, are minorities or have special needs.

Why did we hold the event at Ballou High School? Ballou students accomplished a great deal in the face of systemic challenges and their journeys and perseverance can inspire other students and schools.

One hundred percent of Ballou’s seniors – 190 students! – applied to college this school year. Ballou is the only public DC high school east of the Anacostia River to accomplish such a goal. On top of that, of Ballou’s 164 graduates,100 percent were accepted to a two or four-year college. (Another 20 students will graduate in August.)

Stories of Turnaround from the Stage

At the event, Opportunity Nation Coalition members, students and school and city officials told stories of turnaround through successes, challenges — especially what barriers prevent schools from ensuring more students obtain a diploma — and their next goals:

  • “Many ask, ‘What’s your secret? How did we create this magic?’ Our mission is to expose ALL of our students to college. We leveraged our relationships with our students to show them college was an option. At Ballou, college messaging and college talk is the norm. Our students have visited campuses — we offered 25 college tours this year with support from donors — talked to admissions officers and they know that we believe in their potential Our students are clear that this is what we do at Ballou: we apply to college.” – Dr. Yetunde Reeves, Principal, Ballou High School
  • “Exposure can be a game changer for young people. To get more students on postsecondary paths, we have to communicate options and what life looks like after high school.” – Nathaniel Cole, Executive Director, Urban Alliance, Washington, DC
  • “What’s happening at Ballou High School is heartening, and is proof that progress is possible.” – John Gomperts, President & CEO, America’s Promise Alliance
  • “My recommendation to the school system is to keep college access programs up and running.” – Camille Benbow, Ballou High School Class of 2017
  • “In holding schools accountable, transparency is key, and it’s important to consider student and parent voices.” – Trayon White, Sr., Washington, DC Ward 8 Councilmember
  • “We need to show kids excellence, not just excellence for their zip code, but excellence.” – Eugene Pinkard, Jr., Deputy Chief, School Turnaround and Performance, District of Columbia Public Schools

And we heard one parent’s perspective — a Ballou alum herself! — on the importance of being engaged in the school community, and the supports that made a difference for her child:

“Ballou has been very intentional working with parents to make the home and school partnership stronger. This shift has created a more positive school climate. Even in high school, they still want us to be parents, and they need us more than ever. My plan was to be at the school as much as I could. I’d attend field trips, eat lunch with my daughter and support the school community,” said Sharona Thompson.

A Closer Look at the Two Panel Discussions

The event included two panel discussions. The first panel (pictured above), moderated by Melanie Anderson, Director of Government & External Affairs at Opportunity Nation, consisted of native Washingtonians who have been a part of systems’ changes and improvements in DC schools. Thanks to this group of panelists:

  • Kiara Burnett, Class of 2017 Class President, Ballou High School
  • Nathaniel Cole, Executive Director, Urban Alliance, Washington, DC
  • Eugene Pinkard, Jr., Deputy Chief, School Turnaround and Performance, District of Columbia Public Schools
  • Shamele Straughter, Assistant Principal, Ballou High School
  • Trayon White, Sr., Washington, DC Ward 8 Councilmember

The second panel, moderated by Opportunity Nation Executive Director Monique Rizer, turned the conversation to the national level and the importance of using data to discover what factors really impact students. Thanks to this second group of panelists:

  • Daizha Chism, Rising Junior, Ballou High School
  • Jennifer DePaoli, Senior Research and Policy Advisor, Civic Enterprises
  • Da-Quon Rhones, Rising Senior, Ballou High School
  • Reedy Wade, Managing Director, Network Engagement, NAF

Both Daizha and Da-Quon participate in NAF’s Hospitality and Tourism program. Da-Quon will be interning this summer at a Courtyard Marriott and Daizha will be spending her summer as an intern at the annual Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, DC.

“Band helped me focus on graduating, and my band director pushed me to focus on my education,” said Da-Quon. “Participating in NAF helped me a lot with getting experience in a work setting and interviewing for other internships. The work-based setting NAF projects helped me with leadership and team building.”

“My mom motivated me to move forward, no matter what the numbers said,” said Daizha. “Everyday, she told me I was a scholar. NAF’s work-based learning helped me with structure and accountability. It’s phenomenal how connected they are with each student.”

Thank you to all of our speakers who individually took the stage to share their thoughts and experiences:

  • Camille Benbow, Class of 2017, Ballou High School
  • John Gomperts, President & CEO, America’s Promise Alliance
  • Monique Rizer, Executive Director, Opportunity Nation
  • Dr. Yetunde Reeves, Principal, Ballou High School
  • Tatiana Robinson, Rising Sophomore, Ballou High School
  • Sharona Robinson, Ballou High School Alumna & Parent

For more event highlights, please follow the conversation on Twitter with #OurOppNation.

Opportunity Nation Opportunity Nation is a bipartisan, national campaign comprised of more than 350 cross-sector organizations working together to expand economic mobility and close the opportunity gap in America. Opportunity Nation envisions the United States as a nation where everyone – regardless of where they were born – has equal access to opportunity, economic mobility, and success at all stages of life.

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