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Public deserves to know more about new Dunbar principal

Public deserves to know more about new Dunbar principal
Baltimore schools officials have failed to provide sufficient information about a new principal for Paul Lawrence Dunbar High School who previously led a Washington school embroiled in a graduation scandal. (Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

We’re not sure why the Baltimore school board thought it could quietly approve the hiring of a new Paul Laurence Dunbar High School principal who had been involved in a graduation scandal in Washington, D.C.

It was part of several routine hiring decisions made during a school board meeting this week.

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But Yetunde Reeves is no routine hire. A simple Google search brings up an ample number of stories about Ms. Reeves, who appears to have been pushed out of her position at Frank W. Ballou Senior High School in Southeast Washington after it came out two years ago that students there were allowed to graduate despite missing excessive numbers of days of classes.

There were bound to be questions about her background, and we can’t believe school board members didn’t anticipate that. Yet, Chairwoman Cheryl Casciani declined to discuss in detail the reason for the hire.

“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,” Ms. Casciani told Sun reporter Talia Richman.

It lets us know no such thing.

We understand the need to follow personnel rules related to confidentiality, but in this case we think Ms. Casciani and Ms. Reeves should be more forthcoming. Baltimore schools have long been criticized for not giving children an adequate education and even passing students along. Earlier this month, the school system came under attack by Gov. Larry Hogan because of some cases of grade-fixing. The school system fairly pointed out it was only a handful of incidents, but why give the governor more fodder by providing only vague information about Ms. Reeves’ hiring? This as Mr. Hogan has expressed continued doubts about commuting to the influx of education funding contemplated by the Kirwan Commission, in part because of his complaints about accountability. We can already hear Mr. Hogan using this as an excuse for why the Baltimore system can’t be trusted with more money.

The accusations about what happened at Ballou under Ms. Reeves’ watch shouldn’t be taken lightly. Half of the graduates missed more than three months of school during the 2016 to 2017 school year, according to an investigation by National Public Radio and its affiliate, WAMU. One in five students was absent more than present — missing more than 90 days of school. Under the school district’s policy, a student who misses class 30 times should fail the course, according to NPR.

At this point, we are not saying that Ms. Reeves is not entitled to the position of principal; the school system has not provided enough information to know one way or the other. Did the children in her district deal with personal problems that caused them to miss a lot of school even if their grades were good? This would not be uncommon in schools in poor neighborhoods.

What we do know is Ms. Reeves was never formally sanctioned by the D.C. school system and was placed on administrative leave, according to Baltimore Chief of Schools John Davis. He and Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises said that the fact she had not been disciplined made them comfortable with the decision to hire Ms. Reeves.

But Ms. Reeves also never returned to the Ballou, which she told a local television station last year she once planned to do. (She worked at a Washington charter school before getting the Baltimore job.) It begs the question that if Ms. Reeves didn’t do anything to be sanctioned for, then why is she now trying to work in Baltimore?

Also troubling is an audit by Washington, D.C., government officials of what happened at Ballou, finding that there was pressure on teachers from top administrators, including the principal, to achieve high graduation rates.

“Ballou administrators communicated high passing percentage expectations to teachers,” the report said. “These expectations were communicated directly to teachers from the Principal to the Assistant Principals in person, via staff meetings, and via email, and were formalized in the Ballou IMPACT rubric.”

Ms. Reeves told television station ABC7 in Washington, D.C., that she felt like a scapegoat and that she was only trying to help black students. She also said that passing students with excessive absences was a system-wide issue, something the government audit also found. But is it OK to break the rules just because everyone else is as well?

Parents with students at Dunbar should question the decision to hire Ms. Reeves and demand more information about what happened during her time in Washington, D.C., at least for their own peace of mind. They and the rest of us need to hear Ms. Reeves’ explanation for why students were allowed to graduate with such large numbers of absences while she was at Ballou, and system officials need to assure us that nothing like that could happen here. So many Baltimore students graduate without the skills to get decent, life-sustaining jobs. Being allowed to miss so much instructional time would diminish their prospects even more. We certainly wouldn’t want Ms. Reeves to bring that practice and standard here.

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