High school size matters

April 11, 2005

THIRTY STUDENTS from city high schools have been offered full-tuition scholarships to attend the Johns Hopkins University as the first group of Baltimore Scholars. The noteworthy new program aims to keep more of the city's most talented academic achievers, particularly minorities, close to home. All of the scholars were picked from citywide magnet high schools, setting a lofty goal for the neighborhood high schools that a majority of city students attend. Those neighborhood schools - increasingly outdated models of comprehensive, industrial-era high schools that offered different courses for students who were college-bound and those who were not - are in the midst of a major reform effort that is long overdue.

Since 2002, school officials have been breaking up and reorganizing the neighborhood schools so that every student can become "college ready." Officials have been working with the nonprofit Fund for Educational Excellence, following recommendations and guidance of an expert steering committee and drawing on more than $20 million contributed by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other national and local sponsors. The rationale is simple: Education reform experts have long pushed to make high schools smaller in size and more personal in scope, but also more academically challenging for more students.

With a combination of strong principals, quality teachers, revamped curriculums and significant parent and community involvement, the reformers have started giving extreme makeovers to eight neighborhood schools. That has given students the opportunity to choose different learning environments, often within the walls of their former schools. For example, Walbrook Uniform Services Academy has already seen about 270 of its 1,300 students opt for the spin-off Maritime Industries Academy that is housed mostly along two previously underused corridors on one side of the building. The larger school was the scene of several fires and other violent incidents last fall. But Maritime, which includes military drills and courses as part of the curriculum, has had no such disruptions since it started last September.

Much of Maritime's success can be attributed to its size. Principal Marco Clark addresses his students, teachers and support staff by their first names. Not that other principals and teachers don't manage to set a tone of caring, but in a smaller environment, it's easier to achieve consistency of purpose.

Among Maritime's 40 seniors, all had to apply to at least a two-year community college or technical school, and many have already been accepted to four-year colleges. They are now in the vanguard of the new kind of Baltimore scholars that the high school reform effort aims to create.

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