School Daze

Against all odds, Michael Ballez will be graduating from North High School this year.

Those odds include: the classmates who've dropped out, one by one, until only a handful of the kids he started with as a freshman remain in school. The pressures he's faced — and fought — to join a gang. The needs of the two little girls he's fathered. His own learning disabilities. And then keeping his grade point average high enough to play on North's baseball team all four years.

Against all odds, Michael Ballez will be graduating from North this year. But last week he was told that he couldn't line up with other members of his graduating class at the ceremony set for the Colorado Convention Center this coming Saturday, or walk across the stage when his name was read, or reach out his hand for that hard-earned diploma.

That's because Ed Salem, who became principal of North last fall, had decreed that only those students with 85 percent attendance records for their senior year could participate in graduation ceremonies. Never mind that an 85 percent attendance record isn't a Denver Public Schools requirement for high school graduation. Or that affluent schools in the 'burbs are probably lucky to see half of their seniors these spring days, when the sun is out and their futures look certain.

At North High, which has struggled for decades with high dropout rates and low test scores and was almost shut down three years ago, things are never so certain.

And Michael Ballez wasn't alone in being shut out of graduation ceremonies. About fifty of his fellow seniors also learned that even though they meet all the official DPS requirements to graduate high school, they don't meet Salem's personal attendance requirement. And the list that had been posted at North of the 180 graduating students was suddenly replaced with a list of just 133 names.

Isaiah Baca was one of the students whose names disappeared. He says he learned last Friday that he wouldn't be allowed to participate in the ceremonies because he had a 76 percent attendance rating. "Then I got five classes excused," he said, "but that only moved me up 2 percent." And that wasn't good enough for Salem. "He makes up his own rules," Isaiah told me. "This feels really bad to me. I tried hard, and I have good grades."

Isaiah's mother, Joann Martinez, didn't understand it, either. Her son "got his grades, he got his credits, he went to prom, he's all over the yearbook," she said. "He was excited about graduation. And now they're telling him no." After she'd already scrimped to get the money to pay for Isaiah's cap and gown "and sent out the announcements and everything."

But now Isaiah, "the only one of my five kids who's graduated, they're not going to call his name," Martinez said. "It's a heartbreaker."

Isaiah's cousin, Tiffany Martin, is Michael Ballez's mother. When her son broke the bad news about no graduation ceremony last Friday, she couldn't believe it. "The way I see it, you're telling an eighteen-year-old kid, 'You're not good enough to participate in my ceremony,'" she told me. "When my son contacted me, he had a crackle in his voice. He's been through a lot already."

Unlike her older son, who "hung out with the wrong crowd" and dropped out of North, Michael held strong and stayed in school. "My son is not a gang member, he's not in the legal system, he's a full-time dad," Martin explained — a dad who sometimes has to stay home with sick kids. But even though he's a special-ed student, his grades were good enough for him to play baseball, and he stays on track in his classes. Martin knows, because she checks in with Michael's teacher and education case manager daily to make sure.

So she didn't hesitate to call the school to ask about this new graduation-ceremony policy. Ed Salem returned her call and told her that he'd informed the seniors of the 85 percent attendance requirement at a senior meeting a month ago. By then, of course, it would have been impossible for some of them to go to school enough to raise their average to that mark. Salem explained his rationale, how important attendance was, but it didn't make sense to Martin. "These kids are struggling with a lot of issues," she said. "And they're stripping them of a once-in-a-lifetime privilege. They should be thankful for the seniors you have in that school."

Although Martin didn't know if she could convince North to reverse its policy, she didn't want to go down without a fight. She has a daughter who's a junior at North, and "I'd really hate to see her being put through the same thing," she told me. "I wasn't just speaking for my son. I know there are other students in this position."

After I spoke with Martin, I called North, where I was told that Ed Salem wasn't at school that day and that I'd have to call the DPS regarding North's graduation-ceremony policies. So I did, and while I waited for a return call, I started dialing. One call was to Lucia Guzman, the former school-board member who heads the Denver Agency for Human Rights and Community Relations. "These students should be honored," she said when I told her of Salem's special requirement. "They should not be shamed. This is a process that honors graduates. This is not a time to shame these students."

Guzman started dialing, too. She called the DPS superintendent's office, other DPS officials (at one point, she had three on a speaker phone), members of the school board. She called education activists and told them to get ready to rally. "My blood keeps boiling," she said. "There's going to be a huge outcry."

Or maybe just one very big celebration this Saturday.

On Tuesday afternoon, I finally got a call back from Alex Sanchez, spokesman for DPS, who read a statement: "Ed Salem and the Denver Board of Education and the staff of North look forward to having every single one of the graduates at the actual graduation ceremony. We look forward to celebrating their accomplishments."

That's all 180 students, he pointed out. DPS would be calling the parents of the fifty students who were told they couldn't participate, to "clarify" the situation. "The point here," he said, "is that we look forward to having every single student at graduation."

When I called Martinez with the news, she was overcome. Martin was overjoyed. "I just wanted someone to hear me," she said.

Loud and clear.

Michael and his mother have worked hard to get him through school. "Michael was kind of struggling in civics," she admits. Give them both an A for this lesson in civic responsibility. And give Salem an F. Yes, attendance is important — but the time and place to fight truancy is not after a student has already qualified to graduate.

As for North, it's about to undergo a $34 million, taxpayer-funded rehab. Let's hope DPS remembers to put in some heart.

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