City's dropout rate ranked 9th-worst in nation in 1990 School official disputes figures of Census Bureau

September 18, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,1990 U.S. Census/APStaff Writer

Baltimore had one of the highest concentrations of high-school dropouts in the country in 1990 and the second-highest in the Northeast, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Census data reported to Congress by the U.S. Department of Education this week show that 22.8 percent of all 16- to 19-year-olds living in the city had not completed high school or were not currently enrolled in school.

The data rank Baltimore ninth in the nation, behind Trenton, N.J., and seven California cities.

But school and business officials in Baltimore disagree on whether the Census Bureau data accurately reflect the city's chronic dropout problems.

"We definitely think it's overstated," said Nat Harrington, a spokesman for the city school system.

"We certainly don't think it's anywhere near 23 percent," he said.

He said the census data include dropouts who may have moved **TC to the city from other areas and do not take into consideration dropouts who re-enter school.

Figuring differently, the Baltimore school system estimates its dropout rate at 10.3 percent in the 1990-1991 school year.

But others saw the study as more evidence of the city's serious dropout problem.

"The report only substantiates our worst fears," said Jeff Valentine, public policy director for the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents the city's major businesses.

Business executives have long complained that the city is doing a poor job of preparing young people for an increasingly complex work world, he said.

"I don't know how we can compete with a population where a quarter of the youngsters have not even gotten the barest minimum of education needed to be productive citizens," he said.

And Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the state Board of Education, said the census data simply confirms the link between poverty and poor school attendance.

"I think the general result is not surprising," he said. "The poorer the city, the higher the dropout rate in general."

Over a four-year period, he added, the total number of youths dropping out of city schools is likely to be even higher, closer to 40 percent.

The dropout figures came from the 1990 census of all households in the country. They represent the number of 16- to 19-year-olds reporting themselves as dropouts on the survey.

The nationwide total was 11.2 percent. The numbers reported in the census do not reveal how many students dropped out each year, however.

The city and state calculate the dropout rate using a different formula based on school enrollment data. According to data reported to the state by Baltimore, the annual dropout rate stood at 10.3 percent in the 1990-1991 school year, down from 14.6 percent the year before.

That compares with a statewide average dropout rate of 4.3 percent.

By either measure, however, Baltimore has a high number of dropouts, a situation the city attributes in part to economics.

"It is cheaper to live in Baltimore City than in Baltimore County," said Mr. Harrington, spokesman for the school system.

"We have an influx of people from different socioeconomic groups who can find solace here," he said.

Besides the lower cost of living, dropouts may be drawn to the city by jobs and public assistance, factors that add to the dropout rate, he said. Many of these new city residents come from Washington, which itself posted a teen-age dropout population of 19.1 percent, Mr. Harrington said.

He also speculated that some Baltimore high school graduates leave the city for the prospect of higher-paying jobs in suburban areas.

In general, he said, the Census Bureau used "an over-simplistic approach" in calculating the cities' dropout numbers.

School attendance in general is one of the top priorities of Superintendent Walter G. Amprey, who has put principals on notice that they will be judged in part on their success in getting children to school.

During the 1990-1991 school year, a total of 36.7 percent of students in the city missed a month of school or more. At one school, 74.2 percent missed a month or more that year.

Robert L. Wilson, president of the Baltimore City Council of PTAs, said the census numbers indicate a need for attendance and dropout-prevention programs at the elementary school level.

"We need to focus a lot more on getting children to like education at the elementary school level," he said. "Sometimes, school becomes boring, the same routine day after day."

Mr. Wilson also cited drugs as a reason for the city's high dropout rate.

ACROSS THE U.S.

Here is a look at dropout percentages for 20 major cities in 1990:

Trenton, N.J..... .... 23.0 Baltimore .... .... .. 22.8 Providence, R.I.... .. 22.6 Los Angeles ... ... .. 21.9 St. Louis ... ... .... 20.7 Dallas... ... ... .... 20.0 Washington, D.C ... .. 19.1 Detroit .... .... .... 18.8 Miami ... ... ... .... 18.5 Houston ... ... ... .. 17.5 Chicago ... ... ... .. 17.0 Denver ... .... ... .. 16.8 Richmond ... ... ... . 16.4 Atlanta ... .... ... . 15.8 Philadelphia ... ... . 15.7 New York ... ... ... . 13.1 Boston ... .... .... . 12.8 Pittsburgh ... ..... . 12.6 Seattle... ... ... ... 12.1 San Francisco... ... .. 9.2

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