Succeeding Against the Odds—Graduating from High School in the Nation’s Capital

[Image: (L to R) Camille Benbow, Class of 2017, Ballou High School; Dr. Yetunde Reeves, Principal, Ballou High School; Kiara Burnett, Class of 2017 Class President, Ballou High School; Da-Quon Rhones, Rising Junior, Ballou High School; Monique Rizer, Executive Director, Opportunity Nation Photo Credit: Akeel L. Ali.]


Last Thursday, Opportunity Nation, along with Urban Alliance and America’s Promise Alliance, hosted a summit comprising two panel discussions with public officials from Washington, D.C., civic leaders, and students and staff from Ballou High School in the District.

Each of the 164 students graduating from Ballou applied to a two- or four-year postsecondary school—and each was accepted.


(Photo Credit: Akeel L. Ali)


‘Their Story Tells Us What Can Be Done’


“This is a good news story in the context of a lifelong journey,” Monique Rizer, executive director of Opportunity Nation, a bipartisan, national campaign made up of more than 350 organizations, told me recently.

Rizer stressed that Ballou’s turnaround story is just beginning—there is a lot more work to be done. She also stressed that students were the main drivers of this goal.

“They were committed to reaching this milestone together,” she said. “This effort was led by students, and supported by the administration and the community.”

With support from community leaders in Ward 8; Ballou’s principal, Yetunde Reeves; national nonprofits; and especially parents, the students were able to overcome stiff challenges:

  • High rate of violent crime
  • The highest rate of inequality in the nation
  • High rate of teacher turnover
  • High poverty
  • The nation’s lowest high school graduation rate

Any one of these circumstances would be difficult for most young people to overcome, furthermore all of them. Yet the Ballou graduates, plus 20 more students that expect to graduate in August, overcame them.

In spite of these challenges, Rizer says, “Their story tells us what can be done.”

At the summit, the role of engaged parents was prominent. “Five students spoke, and many of them said that their parents were the ones encouraging them to pursue their education, Rizer told me.


(Photo Credit: Akeel L. Ali)


Other caring adults also played a role; for one student, it was his band teacher who said that academics come first. Since he wanted to stay in band, the student worked hard in his studies.

Rizer urges business leaders to get involved in their communities through programs like Urban Alliance or the NAF Alliance—which allows high school students to see what work looks like, “which is hard to do without private sector involvement,” she says.

“We need as many voices as possible. Principals, nonprofits, students, parents, and the community all working together to accomplish this goal.”

For more about Opportunity Nation, visit its website.