Baltimore's graduation rate for African-Americans has risen above the national average. That may not be much to brag about, since the average is shamefully low. But the fact that more minority students in Baltimore, including Latinos, are earning a high school diploma might indicate that city school officials are on the right track with many of the high school reforms that were started three years ago.
Despite improvements, however, no one should rest on any laurels. The city school system still has a long way to go to produce more graduates.
Nationally, about 70 percent of students complete high school in four years. While about 75 percent of white students graduate, the rate is about 56 percent for black students and about 50 percent for Hispanic students. The most recent report from Maryland's Department of Education shows that Baltimore's overall graduation rate for the 2004-2005 school year increased by 4.6 percent from 2003-2004 to about 59 percent, one of the largest across-the-board increases since 1996. The graduation rate was 58.7 percent among black students and nearly 84 percent among Hispanic students, though the total number of Hispanic students is relatively small.
In addition to the improved graduation rate, school experts at the Johns Hopkins University who analyzed the data calculate that about 400 additional students graduated in 2005 compared with 2004 and that 250 fewer students dropped out between 2004 and 2005. The Hopkins experts also note that while about 5,000 city students were dropping out each year in the mid- to late 1990s, the number of dropouts in 2004 and 2005 seems to be holding at about 3,200, or nearly 12 percent of high school enrollment. That's clearly not great, but it's progress of a sort.
School officials and other experts are right in their cautious optimism that much of the progress can be attributed to comprehensive high school reforms that the system started implementing in 2002. The reforms include breaking up large neighborhood high schools into smaller learning academies, with more emphasis on personal attention to students and raised expectations for success. City high schools are also benefiting from more focused training for teachers and redesigned curriculums that are more academically rigorous.
In addition to these reforms, Baltimore will likely need more schools with innovative approaches to learning as well as more community schools that offer social services and other support to students who are struggling to stay in class. Finding and sustaining the right formula to increase the high school graduation rate is rewarding for students and essential to the city's long-term economic and social health.