Many at Digital Harbor found program too difficult

20% of facility's freshmen didn't return for 2nd year

November 04, 2003|By Tanika White | Tanika White,SUN STAFF

Last fall, more than 300 teen-agers sat straight-backed in sleek, metallic chairs at Digital Harbor High School, eagerly looking forward to all that the new city school had to offer - computers, state-of-the art technology and academic challenge.

Their uniforms were crisp. Their eyes were bright. Their hopes were raised.

But this fall, 20 percent of that inaugural freshman class did not return to Digital Harbor.

Some students believed they had to travel too far each day to get to South Baltimore, where the magnet school is located. Others moved out of the city.

However, many who didn't come back for their sophomore year told the principal, Michael Pitroff, "This is not the program for me." And that has Pitroff and others wondering if perhaps Digital Harbor's demanding program is simply too tough for some students, all of whom were admitted by lottery without having to pass an entrance exam or meet any academic criteria.

"We're running into difficulty with some of the students here trying to deal with the technology focus and the high standards," Pitroff said. "Not having entrance requirements ... there's no screening mechanism for the kids in terms of grades, test scores or technology aptitude."

The random entrance approach, Pitroff said, was meant to give more city students a chance to attend a school that administrators hope will one day be one of the district's crown jewels. With its technology emphasis, Digital Harbor aims to prepare college-bound students for computer science courses, or produce computer technicians ready for the workplace.

The school has a longer day - 45 minutes more than most city high schools. And ninth-graders are required to pass two yearlong math courses, compared with only one math class in most other city high schools. Classrooms are outfitted with surround sound and touch-screen teacher resource centers. Student desks are wired for Internet access.

But although any student chosen in the lottery can attend Digital Harbor, many of last year's freshmen realized - a year late - that they had not been well-prepared for the workload.

"If they're not versed in technology, they start off at a disadvantage," Pitroff said. "The more versed they are, the more comfort they have around technology, the better off they're going to be. Do we have a lot of middle schools that are preparing the kids for technology? The answer is `No.'"

The quality of middle school preparation has had major ramifications at Digital.

Three-quarters of the class needed extra help in math or reading. Nearly 100 students required remedial help in summer school after their freshman year. And nearly 40 had to repeat the ninth grade.

Despite the problems, school officials still favor admitting students without an entrance exam. And any disappointing results mean that the school's leaders and teachers have to work harder to help students make up the ground.

"The fact that the bar is where it is, we feel very strongly that we have to do more interventions, more supports to make sure the children are able to reach that level faster," said Cassandra W. Jones, the school system's chief academic officer. "So as we look at these numbers [of students who left the program], the first thing that we say is, `Do we have enough interventions?'"

This year, Pitroff started an evening school program for students who are repeating ninth grade. The night classes are tacked on to the regular school day, doubling up on subjects the students failed. If the program works, many of those students will be promoted to 10th grade by spring, Pitroff said.

Also, the school's recruiters will spend more time at the city's middle schools describing to prospective freshmen Digital Harbor's subject matter and rigorous pace. "We want to explain to the kids the kind of skill sets we think they'll need to be successful," Pitroff said.

With more information and effective interventions, school officials said, the student population should stabilize over time.

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