When the state released its annual school report card yesterday, Baltimore found itself in a familiar position: at the bottom.
The 110,000-student school system met only two of 13 state standards -- for the reading portion of the state functional tests, which 99 percent of 11th-graders passed, and for elementary school promotion rates, at 97 percent.
Superintendent Walter G. Amprey said the ranking isn't cause for despair but should be a wake-up call to the city's schools -- and its communities, families and students.
Sounding a familiar theme, Dr. Amprey said that, more than anything else, improving schools will require a change in attitudes and a collective effort to raise expectations of inner-city children among teachers, parents and schools themselves.
"We recognize that we're not going to have improvement until we provide a culture for that, the climate for that," said Dr. Amprey, now in his third year at the helm of city schools. "While we've seen improvement, we have an awful lot of work to do, and we know that."
Dr. Amprey pointed to improvement in elementary school promotions, with 112 of 130 schools meeting standards, and attendance, with 37 meeting the standards.
Attendance also improved at 26 middle schools but only two of 36 met the state standard.
Most high schools also fared better on functional reading, math, writing and citizenship tests, Dr. Amprey said.
More than half of the city's 28 high schools improved attendance and dropout rates, but most of them still placed well below state standards.
The superintendent said he was particularly troubled by an increase in the high school dropout rate, from 16.4 percent to 18.5 percent, and would strive to find out why and seek ways to keep more teens in school.
"I'm not going to dance around it; it's a real problem," Dr. Amprey said.
He said the perennially cash-strapped school system has undertaken numerous efforts to try to improve student performance and attendance and reduce the dropout rate.
Reversing the decline of many inner-city schools, Dr. Amprey acknowledged, is a long, arduous journey.
He envisions a school system with less "tracking" of students as gifted or slow, more individual attention, less reliance on low grades and red pen ink, fewer suspensions and arrests, more efforts to build self-esteem.
Dr. Amprey said the city is trying to improve individual schools' accountability as part of a restructuring designed to shift control and responsibility to individual schools from headquarters.
The city, like the state's other 24 districts, met none of the standards for a tough battery of tests in reading, math, social studies and science.
The tests are designed to measure how well students apply what they learn in the classroom.
Schools in Baltimore appear among the most likely targets of proposed state regulations that would give the state control over poor performing, declining schools.
The state could place a handful of the worst such schools in private hands under the proposal, scheduled for a state school board vote this week.
While teachers' unions and some superintendents oppose that idea, Dr. Amprey welcomed it.
"I think we can no longer argue that intervention is not necessary when it comes to taking care of kids," he said.
"We don't have so much pride that we're gonna say we don't need outside intervention."
A Minneapolis firm, Education Alternatives Inc., began running nine schools last year in a bold experiment being watched closely by educators and investors nationwide.
Sylvan Learning Centers, based in Columbia, took over remedial tutoring at six other schools in the spring.