For the 14,000 students attending Baltimore's neighborhood high schools, getting a diploma means dodging gang fights and overcoming big odds to stay in classrooms with students who may be unable to read their textbooks.
With the state proposing to add one more hurdle -- a tough state graduation test -- school administrators say they must change the way the city's nine neighborhood high schools operate.
In the next year, the school system seems likely to adopt major reforms. The measures, being written and reviewed by the school staff, are far from radical. Schools won't be turned over to a private company, and the city's magnet schools will continue to draw the brightest students. But the changes are intended to be substantive.
Administrators hope to use ideas that have been around for years but haven't been tried in a sustained way in Baltimore.
No one has disputed the need for fundamental change. Not parents who rushed to Southwestern about two weeks ago to pick up their children after a student shooting; not high school teachers who have half their students show up each day; and not principals who struggle with too few teachers, too little money and too many disruptive students.
"You can't just be cleaning up the edges," said James McPartland, director of the high school program at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk. "You have to make fundamental reforms so these schools look and feel different."
The school board, appointed in 1997, tackled reform of elementary schools last year. Now, the board will turn its attention to fixing the high schools. The reform proposals are expected to be formally presented to the city school board next month, after Chief Executive Officer Robert Booker has reviewed and approved them.
If the school board accepts the most recent proposals, the reforms will be spread over several years, beginning with two major efforts next fall, said Sandra Wighton, director of secondary education and head of the school system's high school task force.
Two fall efforts
The first effort would be to focus on improving instruction and the curriculum for students entering ninth grade. As many as half of those students drop out by 10th grade or repeat ninth grade. Ninth-graders at some schools would be separated in one area of the building and divided into groups of about 300 students. After ninth grade, students would choose a curriculum for their careers for the remainder of high school.
Task force members believe students are so far behind their peers statewide in reading and math that ninth-graders need intensive basic reading and math courses to prepare them for high school-level algebra and English.
The second effort would be to give high school teachers support and training to improve instruction.
Instead of training teachers in daylong workshops or a week in the summer, the task force might recommend that "master" teachers or coaches be hired to work in the schools and advise classroom teachers. Teachers also would be given more time to plan for discussions about the progress of students and course work.
"High school reform is not going to happen until we change high school instruction," Wighton said.
State tests possible
In the next two years, the stakes for creating successful high schools might be raised. Students entering ninth grade in 2001 might be required to pass a series of tests to get their high school diplomas. The tests would be more difficult than tests now required.
Determining the best reform approach is considered the first step to improving the schools.
Not every high school needs help. Nine of the city's 18 high schools are magnet schools where students apply and must be selected to attend. Some of those magnets, such as City College, educate the city's brightest, and other schools attract students committed to a strong vocational program, such as Carver Vocational Technical or Paul Laurence Dunbar.
`Processed like a number'
The remainder of the high schools are the neighborhood schools that draw students based on geographic divisions of the city. Those sprawling complexes with up to 2,400 students, such as Northern, Southern, Northwestern and Lake Clifton/Eastern, are the ones with the most problems.
"The kids feel they are being processed like a number rather than educated like a young human being," McPartland said.
The majority of the students at those schools don't make it to their senior year, and those that do sometimes don't get diplomas because they can't pass the state's functional tests, the same tests the average suburban child passes in middle school.
Nationwide, said Wighton, no one has found the answer to improving high schools. If it were simple, everyone would have adopted a model, she and others argue.