Two days after the state issued report cards that put Baltimore at or near the bottom of Maryland's 24 school districts in everything from school spending to performance, the city's superintendent held a news conference to declare the system was on its way up.
"We have made greater progress this year than last year," Richard C. Hunter, the superintendent, said yesterday. "We have charted a new course for our system."
Dr. Hunter said that in the last year schools had become safer, suspensions and expulsions had been reduced and attendance in elementary schools had improved. Most other school systems in the state average around 95 percent in the elementary grades, about 5 percentage points higher than the city.
Elementary attendance had actually increased much more than the stated increase from 89.9 percent to 90.9 percent, Dr. Hunter said, but it was impossible to document because the numbers had been misrepresented in the past: Children who didn't show up in the last few weeks of school were recorded as present.
Attendance for high schools and middle schools didn't improve. Last year's attendance in grades 7-12 was just over 79 percent, about the same as reported the previous year. With a rate of 79 percent -- 21 percent of its students missing every day -- the city was still well behind the next lowest system, Prince George's, which had a rate of close to 89 percent.
Dr. Hunter said that last June he told principals it was no longer acceptable to count as present children who had stopped going to school after Memorial Day.
"We eliminated irregular attendance after Memorial Week," Dr. Hunter said, adding that in 1989, at the end of his first year as superintendent, he had been surprised to find schools nearly empty by mid-June. Schools had accepted it as inevitable that children would begin leaving in droves after Memorial Day, he said. By the last days of school, few remained.
"You come when you want to come," he said, describing the attitude. "Those practices have to be eliminated. It was not easy to eliminate those practices."
Principals said many schools encouraged poor attendance at the end of the year by collecting books and giving out report cards early.
Principals interviewed yesterday said that during the last school year they had been asked to improve end-of-the year attendance and more children appeared to be in school in June.
But the new policy remained unclear to some, who said they thought they were still required to turn in their June attendance a few days before the end of school.
"You estimate it," one principal said, adding that a school that wanted to inflate its attendance could do so. Karen Poe, a spokesman for the school system, said that last June an early submission was required only for report card purposes and that final figures were submitted a day after the end of school for elementaries and two days later for high schools.
Allen Kershman, principal of Thomas Johnson Elementary School South Baltimore, said his school's attendance was up by about 1 percent the last two months of the school year. He tried several tactics to increase it, including holding the award ceremonies on the last day.
Mr. Kershman credited Dr. Hunter with rescheduling the school year so that next June teachers will be in school one day longer than students, instead of leaving the same day as in the past.
"You would have kids going out the door and teachers going out right behind them," Mr. Kershman said, which encouraged early collection of books.
The report Dr. Hunter used to draw attention to progress was replete with statistics that documented the extent of the city's problems. Of 3,582 high school graduates last
year, only 679 were accepted by four-year colleges; there is no record of how many actually entered. More failed to graduate -- 742 -- than went on to those colleges. Only the most determined remain until their senior year; the biggest dropout rate traditionally comes between ninth and 10th grades.
Another 231 were accepted by two-year schools, ranging from community colleges to for-profit trade schools. Four students were accepted at military academies.
Last year there were 1,908 suspensions, down from 2,356 in 1988-1989. Expulsions dropped to 270 from 398. But assaults with a deadly weapon rose from 57 in 1988-1989 to 75 last year, and reported cases of weapons possession rose from 69 to 72. Drug cases dropped from 58 to 35. Disorderly conduct dropped from 226 to 186, but common assault rose from 467 to 509.
Over the last several years, however, reports of firearms have steadily declined, from 122 in 1983-1984 to 55 in 1987-1988 and 28 last year.
"Certainly this system deserves a high grade for its effort," Dr. Hunter said yesterday. Last February, he gave the system an "A" for the progress it made despite the limitations of poverty that afflict both the students and the system. Yesterday, he declined to give a letter grade.
As the schools attempt even greater improvement, he said, everyone should remember Baltimore's children come to school with greater disadvantages than those in other districts. Before great progress can be made, he said, he has to get the institution moving in the right direction.
"One of the wonderful things about being a member of a minority group is you understand the world is not fair," Dr. Hunter said, "and people don't give you an equal chance. . . . That's the thing about minority groups. We have a history of overcoming very serious odds. But we're hard-working people. . . . We've shown we can make a difference, and next year we're going to make a bigger difference."