Downtown will suffer if new high school isn't selective

City Diary

April 24, 2002|By Paul Marx

Worst-case scenario: Soft-drink cans left everywhere. Passers-by harassed. Elevators broken. Jewelry snatched. Fire engines called for the fun of it. Fights spilled into the street blocking traffic. Yes, crowds of high school students have brought tension to some downtowns. It could happen in Baltimore.

Opening a high school in the downtown business district could be the cause of great regret.

But a downtown themed high school, which has been proposed for Baltimore, could provide life-changing opportunities for hundreds of students.

It all depends on how the school is managed.

The new high school must be selective. The proposed specialties are to be tourism and finance. To be admitted, therefore, students must demonstrate some aptitude for those fields. They must have an above-average knowledge of geography and above-average skills in math. As with selective high schools elsewhere, the students should be required to take an entrance exam. You don't get into Stuyvesant, Brooklyn Tech or Bronx Science in New York City without doing well on an entrance exam.

The students assigned to the proposed new school must not simply be transferees from other city schools; they should have to compete to get in. The school should be a magnet school. It should aim to attract students from all over the city. Indeed, a percentage of seats should be reserved for students from outside the city who want to attend. That would allow a comparable number of city students to attend county schools. The better the mix of race and social class the better the downtown school will be.

Having to do well on an exam to get in would provide an incentive to learn throughout the school system. Past behavior and attendance should be admission considerations, too. If students know misbehavior will disqualify them from the downtown school, they'll have an additional incentive not to go astray.

There should be a dress code. The sloppy, anything-goes style of dress permitted today in most public schools should not be permitted at the downtown school. Students should dress like the business people in their building. When they go out on their internships, they should blend in with the other employees at the agency or bank.

The internship opportunities are one of the most important reasons for establishing this school. Businesses must want to offer internships. They won't, though, if students are dressed for the street corner or the beach. They won't if tourism students don't know what a continent is or if finance students can't calculate a percentage.

Just as the students must be carefully screened, so must the teachers. Teachers at this school must not be chosen on the basis of seniority or as a way to solve an administrative problem. They must be chosen on the basis of their leadership ability. They must be keenly aware of the challenge the school faces and be eager to play a decisive role in making the school a success. They must be willing to befriend students and to fail them. They must be willing to assert their authority.

Across the country, magnet schools have a mixed record. In some, test scores have actually gone down. In some, the graduation rate is no better than the rate for the ordinary neighborhood school. But in the best magnet schools, test scores and graduation rates have gone up dramatically. It's all a matter of the leadership.

It's sometimes said that magnet schools must necessarily do better than other schools. After all, they have "creamed" the best students away from the neighborhood schools. But if the magnet school is genuinely better, if its students have significantly better test scores and graduation rates, then there will be more competition to get in. Parents will want their kids to attend an outstanding school for free. The elementary feeder schools will get better.

The downtown school is proposed to open in September with 90 freshmen. Here's a word of caution. Every student should be one the principal can be reasonably sure of in terms of ability and behavior. If some potential students raise doubts, it would be better to do without them than to bring them in just to make the quota of 90.

Today's writer

Paul Marx is a retired professor of English at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. He lives in Towson.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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