Elva Lovoz thought she’d graduated from high school in June 1999. More than a year later, she still can’t get her diploma.

Elva Lovoz was proud to be the first in her family to graduate from high school. Her parents and boyfriend snapped photos and cheered her on as she walked across the stage at Coolidge Senior High School in a white cap and gown in June 1999. After immigrating from El Salvador in the ’70s, her family lived together in Petworth until her parents divorced seven years ago. Today, they rarely show up at the same events, but they both understood the significance of the commencement ceremony. “Because I’m a minority, I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it,” Lovoz says.

But more than a year later, Lovoz is still without a diploma. An unexceptional student who planned to enroll at Montgomery College, Lovoz has had to pass up opportunities for two college scholarship nominations in the past year while trying to resolve a controversy over a grade that she received in her senior English class. “I wanted to just have a career,” she says. “I wanted to be financially stable in the future. I’ve always wanted to own my own business, and you need to go to school for that.”

Instead of studying for a future as a small-business woman, Lovoz is coping with the day-to-day realities of life in the service economy—and a school system that has turned a minor grade dispute into a major stumbling block.

In early June 1999, Lovoz missed several days of school while in Providence Hospital with a kidney infection. The D.C. Public Schools system requires four years of high school English for graduation, and Lovoz says that her English teacher, Lohegrin Nix, told her she could turn in a term paper late because of her illness. Coolidge Assistant Principal Robert Wooten recommended that she remind Nix to put the agreement in writing, she says, so that Wooten could keep the signed note. So she did. The system seemed to be running smoothly. But, Lovoz says, when she turned the paper in on the agreed-upon day, Nix would not accept the essay. So she turned to Wooten for the backup note. But he said he could not find the note and didn’t remember what it said, Lovoz recounts.

After days of discussions with her English teacher and Wooten, Lovoz pleaded her case to Principal Glen Jones only hours before the graduation ceremony. Jones had to make a judgment call: He chose not to dispute Nix’s rejection of Lovoz’s late term paper. Instead, he ruled that Nix should have given Lovoz a separate, less time-intensive make-up assignment to take the place of the term paper, as school policy requires. Because Nix had not done so, the dispute over the term paper would be set aside and no final project would be required.

Jones signed another note, excusing Lovoz’s absences, and changed her class grade from an Incomplete to a D. It might not have been the grade she was hoping for, but it was sufficient for graduation.

“It gave me pride to know that I’d achieved what I wanted to achieve,” says Lovoz.

Lovoz took a few weeks to celebrate her accomplishment and then set about the process of applying to Montgomery College for the fall semester. She returned to Coolidge with a friend to get a copy of her transcript and diploma for the college application she had just begun to fill out.

But at the Coolidge registrar’s office, Lovoz was turned away empty-handed. An unsigned note attached to her diploma said she needed to go to summer school. No transcript would be released. (Lovoz says she was never given an explanation for her record’s being withheld.)

Lovoz was flabbergasted. Not only had Jones told her she would graduate, but, she would later discover, the school system computer recorded her as having graduated—which prevented her from enrolling in summer school.

Lovoz asked to see Principal Jones, she says, but was told she had to call to make an appointment. Her calls were not returned. At this point, a student with a better support system might have brought in a very angry parent. But Lovoz’s mother doesn’t speak fluent English, and her father, she says, was too wrapped up in his new family to intervene. Lovoz felt too intimidated by school administrators to pursue the issue by herself, she says. She asked Amanda Nevers, a social worker at Mary’s Center for Maternal and Child Health in Adams Morgan, to help. Nevers says she tried in August 1999 to schedule an appointment with Jones to resolve the diploma controversy, but her calls also were not returned.

Knowing that she would not be able to enroll in college that fall, Lovoz got two jobs—at a Xando cafe in Dupont Circle and at the Express clothing store in Union Station—and moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Fort Totten. “I was, like, ‘I’m just going to take some time right now,’” she says. “I wasn’t worried about it because I had that note [from Jones]….I changed my goals around.”

Perhaps she should have been more worried. District policy dictates that when a student disputes a grade, the student must take the issue to an administrator, who then calls a meeting with the teacher, student, and parents, if they are available. The teacher and student present their cases, and the administrator makes a final judgment. If the student is still unsatisfied, he or she has the right to appeal to a school system hearing officer. In Lovoz’s case, however, no school administrator called a conference even though at least three school officials—Nix, Wooten, and later Jones—were aware in June 1999 of the dispute.

Months of phone calls to Jones and Wooten followed. In December 1999, Lovoz was finally allowed to obtain her transcript after a three-way conference call between Nevers and school system higher-ups. That’s when she discovered what was standing between her and her diploma: Her Incomplete had translated into an F on her transcript, not a D.

By now, however, Nevers had changed jobs within Mary’s Center and could no longer take the additional time required to handle Lovoz’s case. Lovoz says she didn’t know how to proceed without an adult to speak on her behalf, so she kept making Arctic Mocha Blasts and selling T-shirts, and tried not to think about it.

As graduation time approached again this year, Lovoz began to have nightmares about never enrolling in college. “It took me a long time to get back on my feet about my diploma because I felt too intimidated,” Lovoz explains. “In May and June, I was getting so depressed. I couldn’t go to sleep….One day, I woke up and I said, ‘I’m going to call.’”

Returning to battle in June of this year, Lovoz enlisted Leslie Sargent, another staffer at Mary’s Center, to help mediate her case. Told that Jones was no longer working in the school district, Sargent says, she scheduled a meeting with now-Acting Principal Wooten for June 21. At the meeting, Wooten read the note attached to Lovoz’s diploma and raised several problems. First, Wooten questioned whether Lovoz had completed her 100 community-service hours, which the District requires for graduation. Sargent cut the debate off, pointing to a signed form showing that Lovoz had fulfilled the requirement. Next problem: Lovoz had a $40 fine for a book she had not returned sophomore year. Sargent handed Wooten $40 in cash. Wooten then turned to the issue of the grade in senior English.

According to the District’s contract with the Washington Teachers’ Union, only teachers can assign class grades. After a heated argument over the legitimacy of the grade given by then-Principal Jones, Wooten promised to ask Nix about the grade. Sargent says that she asked if she could contact Jones directly, but Wooten told her no. When she asked to speak with Nix, Sargent says, Wooten told her that she could leave a letter in Nix’s box at school, but that the school would not forward the letter to him during the summer.

(Wooten refused to discuss Lovoz’s case. “I’m really kind of through with that because it’s not under my jurisdiction,” he said, hanging up abruptly. Nix also declined comment.)

“They say the principal has no right to pass or fail a student, which makes sense to me,” Sargent says. “But here you have an 18-year-old girl who is told by the principal—she understands authority, and she believes the highest person up has the most authority—so when a principal tells her she passed a class, she really believes what the principal said.”

When Lovoz’s case landed on the desk of Assistant Superintendent for High Schools Wilma Bonner in late June of this year, she focused on the quickest solution to the problem. “I advised very emphatically that she enroll in summer school,” Bonner says. She told Lovoz to enroll in the five-week summer program while awaiting a response from Nix.

But when Lovoz looked into summer school, she was told by the person in charge of enrollment that she was not eligible because the school system computer showed a “GRAD” next to her name, meaning she had graduated. In addition, both the morning and afternoon sessions of summer school conflicted with her noon-to-8 p.m. shift as a cashier at Borders Books and Music in Friendship Heights—where she was now working—and Lovoz’s boss would not adjust her schedule.

Sargent concedes that Lovoz was not as assiduous as she could have been in pushing for a resolution. “Her parents aren’t pressuring her to get it done. Her desire to get it done is all her own,” says Sargent. “It isn’t like she can’t live without it….But it’s something she knows she needs, so she goes through waves of ‘I need it now,’ and ‘I’m sick of doing this.’”

On July 11, Lovoz’s phone rang. Sargent delivered the news that Nix had submitted a response saying that Lovoz had failed because of excessive absences and incomplete work. Sargent also relayed a message from Wooten: Lovoz would have to retake the class. But while on the phone with Sargent, Lovoz received another phone call. It was Bonner calling to congratulate Lovoz on passing her English class. When Lovoz told Bonner she had just heard that she had not passed, Bonner deferred to Wooten and excused the error as resulting from a profusion of phone messages. Lovoz burst into tears.

As summer school draws to a close, Lovoz says she may enroll in night school in the fall if she can balance the time commitment—including an hour and a half on the Metro and bus each way to Ballou Senior High School in Highland, Southeast—with her work schedule. First, though, she’ll have to resolve the “GRAD” error in the computer. Still, the recurring bureaucratic nightmare has Lovoz close to accepting a fate as a high school dropout, instead of a college student. “She’s gotten so frustrated. She needs to work. She needs to make money,” says Sargent. “My fear is that she won’t follow through in taking the class.” CP

More from WCP