The principal at the epicenter of a widespread graduation scandal in Washington, D.C., two years ago has a new job: leading a Baltimore City school.
Yetunde Reeves, who left Ballou High in Southeast Washington after damning reports about the school’s graduation practices, was selected by the Baltimore school board Tuesday to be principal of Paul Laurence Dunbar High, among the city’s best.
Under Reeves, Ballou received national media attention after its entire 2017 graduating class was accepted into college. But an investigation by National Public Radio and its affiliate, WAMU, later revealed the administration let many seniors graduate despite missing large chunks of the school year, in what appeared to be a violation of district policy. The revelations prompted a district-wide audit and, eventually, Reeves’ departure.
Tuesday’s hiring was one of a slew of appointments voted on with little fanfare during a special board meeting at the district’s North Avenue headquarters. The school board chair declined to comment on Reeves or any specific personnel decisions.
“The fact we voted for something should let you know that, if there were any concerns raised, we got the information we need to feel confident in our vote,” Cheryl Casciani said.
Chief of Schools John Davis said the system looked into Reeves’ background, and determined she was not formally sanctioned by the D.C. system after its investigation. Reeves was placed on administrative leave while the D.C. school system looked into the allegations. She expected to return to Ballou, she said in a 2018 interview with a local TV station, but was not brought back.
Between serving at Ballou and her appointment Tuesday, Reeves led a Washington charter school.
Davis said she has solid experience running large high schools, and a strong instructional background. Some news reports indicated she was beloved by many Ballou students and parents.
“She has a track record of success, coupled with the fact that she wasn’t ever disciplined, that allows her to be a principal and be a very strong principal,” he said.
Reeves could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Reeves told ABC7 it was devastating to be “the face of a national story when my goal was just to help black children.” She believes she was scapegoated.
Davis himself came to Baltimore from Washington, where he also served as schools chief. He was appointed to his post in the city in July 2017, about four months before the Ballou story broke.
Schools CEO Sonja Santelises said she told her team to do its due diligence, and both she and her team were impressed by Reeves.
“She was not daunted by being in an urban high school. She’s made a career of leading urban high schools,” Santelises said. “Ethical concerns were addressed and researched. Had she been disciplined — that would have made it a different story.”
The issues at Ballou, first reported in November 2017, touched off a wider investigation into Washington’s public schools. A 2018 audit found that at most D.C. public high schools, students were allowed to pass classes despite “excessive unexcused absences, at times missing the majority of the course.”
At Ballou specifically, the audit stated teachers “described direct and indirect pressures from school leadership to pass, promote, and graduate students regardless of content mastery.” It found nearly 64 percent of Ballou graduates earned a diploma despite having excessive absences.
But it also noted Ballou students face many challenges that can affect their attendance, including poverty, homelessness and childcare responsibilities. The same issues pervade Baltimore schools.
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Reeves is not the only former D.C. educator linked to the scandal now employed by North Avenue.
Eugenia Young was appointed recently to lead Excel Academy, after serving as Youth Opportunity’s interim principal. She previously ran Roosevelt STAY High School in Washington, between 2014 and 2017. Roughly 60 percent of Roosevelt STAY seniors who graduated in 2017 did so despite excessive absences, the audit found.
ABC7 reported that Young in 2015 told staff members she was under pressure from the district’s administration to push more students toward graduation.
“We have to pass and promote,” Young said, according to a tape of the meeting obtained by the news station and published last year.
A teacher pushed back, according to the recording: “That makes me feel like we are just going to create this diploma mill,” she said.
Young did not respond to an email seeking comment. Before coming to Baltimore, she had been moved to lead a different D.C. school.
Asked about her appointment, Davis said: “There wasn’t disciplinary action taken with her. She has a track record both here and in D.C. of success.”