City graduates may come to doubt diplomas' value

June 11, 1995|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,Sun Staff Writer

With graduation ceremonies throughout this weekend and over the past week, the Baltimore City Public Schools have sent about 3,600 high school seniors into the world of work and college.

Yet as they mark this annual milestone, reformers and educators are fretting that some of these young adults are ill-prepared for the opportunities that lie ahead.

For their part, the graduates are eager to move on and test their diplomas' value. What they find may disappoint them. And with little wonder:

At Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, the School for the Arts and Western High -- among the city's most selective schools -- each senior is graduating.

That's not true, however, everywhere in Baltimore. Some 300 seniors citywide failed to graduate. At Northern High, one of four seniors failed to graduate. At Patterson and Southwestern, one of five didn't make it. Fifty of Douglass High's 175 seniors did not earn diplomas.

While neighboring school districts brag of students with combined Scholastic Assessment Test scores of 1,400 and higher of a possible 1,600, many Baltimore students don't fare nearly as well despite earning good grades. One valedictorian at city high school had a combined score of 780. The top student at another barely crossed 900.

And while some 3,500 of the city's 3,900 seniors received high school diplomas (and about 100 special-education students received certificates), many students never made it that far.

A total of 9,051 students started city high school as ninth-graders four years ago. More than half left the schools. No one keeps track of what became of them.

These are not merely statistics, but symptoms of persistent low expectations and an inadequate curriculum, students and education experts say. By funneling the city's best students to ,, the most selective schools -- Poly, Baltimore City College, the School for the Arts and Western -- those remaining end up being graded in relation to their classmates.

Illusion of competence

The result is an illusion of competence: graduates with high marks for marginal performance. They will face an uphill struggle against better-prepared competition in the marketplace.

One benefit of the declining number of high schoolers in Baltimore is that more of those who remain are "seriously considering college," said Lara Hall, spokeswoman for Baltimore's nonprofit CollegeBound Foundation.

In 1988, only 26 percent applied to colleges, she said. Last year, about 52 percent did.

Yet motivating a population that includes many poor and undereducated families to value college is tough, Ms. Hall said. Persuading students to shoulder the work of preparing can be difficult, too.

"There are kids in Baltimore City public schools who have the savvy and know what they want," she said, "but most of the kids just don't know. It's too overwhelming, and many students may be ready, but they don't have the tools."

Taketta Glass, 18, felt ill-equipped to take the SATs and intimidated by the prospect of doing poorly. Her fear influenced her career choice.

"I was scared, and that's one reason why I didn't take it -- because I didn't have to take it to become a cosmetologist," said the 1995 Dunbar graduate. "I picked something I liked doing, and something that would not require that I take that test."

She plans to attend the Gordon Phillips Beauty School in the fall. She dreams of owning her own salon but knows she'll need business courses someday.

"Our school started in ninth grade with [SAT] preparation, but I think they should start earlier," she said. "They gave us preparation, but itdidn't prepare us for what was on that test. I have friends who said it was hard."

Last year, Baltimore students' average SAT verbal score was 353, math was 389. The city averages for this year are not yet available. Maryland's averages were 429 verbal and 479 math.

Low expectations

Corean Robinson, a 1995 Walbrook High graduate and student leader, has learned that the roots of the problem include low expectations and unfocused or absent community support.

She noted that Baltimore sets higher standards for the students at the "citywide" college-preparatory high schools, compared to the neighborhood schools, which include her alma mater.

"At a lot of the zone schools and others, if a student gets 1,000 on the SAT -- or even 900 -- they think that they've done top-A work," said Ms. Robinson, 18. Her activities took her to events across the state, where, she said, "When I heard county students say they got 1,100 or 1,200, and how they were disappointed they didn't get a better score, I went, 'Whoa.' "

Students need more support from the adults who are in a position to help, she said. The former student member of the Baltimore school board, and president of the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City, said, "I saw money spent on things that were not having anything to do with education, and things cut that did affect the education.

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