Md. counties praised in graduation study

Report tracks black males in large districts

April 05, 2006|By LIZ F. KAY | LIZ F. KAY,SUN REPORTER

A forthcoming study shows that Baltimore County had the highest graduation rate in 2004 for African-American boys among school districts across the nation that enroll many black students.

The report by the Cambridge, Mass.-based Schott Foundation for Public Education lauds Baltimore County for its 80 percent graduation rate for African-American boys in 2004, nearly identical to their white counterparts' 81 percent. The study also includes Montgomery and Prince George's counties in its praise.

"The three districts together seem to indicate some kind of atmosphere about the educators in the belt between Baltimore and Washington, that they're not going accept the achievement gaps that are accepted in other places," said researcher Michael Holzman, who wrote the study for the Schott Foundation. "The Baltimore County school district is really what I call our benchmark for the whole country on this issue."

But others who have studied graduation rates of minority students say the results from these three counties aren't surprising, and more likely reflect the demographics of the communities than efforts of the school systems.

Montgomery and Prince George's counties have graduation rates slightly below Baltimore County, according to the Schott study, which focused on school districts with more than 10,000 black male students.

When the three counties are considered together, the report states, they enroll the country's third-largest population of black male students, yet in 2004 the graduation rate of these students barely differed from that of white boys nationwide.

But Christopher B. Swanson, director of the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center and co-author of several papers on minority graduation rates with the Harvard University-based Civil Rights Project, said, "What is going right probably doesn't have a whole lot to do with the schools." Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties all have been on the receiving end of black middle-class "flight," he said.

The African-American populations in those communities tend to be more affluent than other areas included in the report, he said.

Fewer than half the students in these three Maryland school districts are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, which is considered an indicator of poverty. Districts on the other end of the report's continuum, such as Cincinnati, have among the lowest graduation rates for young black men and high numbers of children in poverty, according to schoolmatters.com, a Web site that lists education data from across the country.

Graduation is a social norm for students in upper-class and middle-class neighborhoods, said Robert Balfanz, research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools at the Johns Hopkins University.

But that does not mean that all poor children are destined for failure, he said. Baltimore City's elite magnet schools enroll lots of successful children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, he said.

And "if you live in a middle-class neighborhood, graduation is the norm, but high achievement isn't necessarily the norm," Balfanz said. Prince George's County, for example, has a number of schools on the state's "school improvement" list based on performance on state tests.

The report's focus on school districts with more than 10,000 African-American boys restricted the study to 58 large school systems. Maryland's districts are comparably large.

Over the years, Baltimore County, like other school districts, has struggled to help black students perform as well as white children on state tests.

"It's gratifying to know we are having some degree of success" with graduation rates, said Superintendent Joe A. Hairston. However, he said, the work continues.

The leaders of Baltimore County's parent groups agreed that more work needs to be done.

"I'm proud to see that we are leading the country in terms of the graduation rate, but I still don't feel we should rest on our laurels," said Ella White Campbell, chairwoman of the school district's minority achievement advisory group.

"Graduating and graduating well are two different things," said County PTA Council President Michael C. Franklin.

Maggie Kennedy, who leads the Baltimore County Education Coalition, asked how these results would be affected by the looming High School Assessments, which this year's freshmen will have to pass to graduate in 2009.

"In three years, are we going to be able to have that same pride when the HSAs are upon us?" she asked.

Hairston said the school system was using the voluntary state curriculum to align what's taught in county schools more tightly to what's tested on the exams.

"We're fairly confident that we're moving in the right direction," he said. "We've been consistent with making appropriate adjustments when necessary."

The report's findings confirm how economic integration has helped some minority students, Balfanz said.

"The more that minorities have been able to fully join the middle class, for that segment, their graduation rates go up," he said. "It's those that are left behind then that really struggle."

liz.kay@baltsun.com

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