A growth enterprise

Our view : A small rise in enrollment offers hope for Baltimore's troubled school system and some evidence that efforts to keep kids in school are having results

November 13, 2008

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso's recent announcement that for the first time in decades, city schools posted a modest rise in enrollment was a welcome surprise. State officials had predicted the schools would lose about 3,000 students this year; instead, the system saw a small increase of about 800 students, much of it attributable to fewer dropouts between the ninth and 10th grades and to more parents enrolling their children in prekindergarten programs. If the trend continues, it could signal the first time since 1969 that Baltimore's public schools were a growth enterprise.

The departure from previous years is striking. Formerly, up to 60 percent of city students dropped out before graduating from high school. In 2007, for example, only 5,871 of 8,918 high school freshmen returned as sophomores - a loss of more than 3,000 students. This year, by contrast, only 2,115 freshmen failed to return as sophomores. That's still nearly a quarter of the class, but it's also about 900 more students than last year that educators managed to keep in school. Mr. Alonso is right to insist that more be done, but cutting dropouts by nearly a third represents undeniable progress.

A study this year by the Maryland Public Policy Institute estimated that each high school dropout costs the state nearly $2,000 every year in lost tax revenues, higher Medicaid costs and incarceration expenses (because dropouts are twice as likely as graduates to spend time in jail). Multiply that by the 900 additional city freshman who returned as sophomores this year and Marylanders saved about $1.8 million because these students chose to stay in school.

Encouraging as those results are, the longer-term significance of the enrollment bump may lie in the growing number of parents who are signing up their kids for city pre-K programs. Their enrollment grew from 3,642 last year to an estimated 4,110 this year, a nearly 13 percent increase. That may not seem like a lot in absolute terms, but the numbers' significance lies in the signal they send about parents' willingness to buy into the city schools again: People will send their kids if they believe the schools offer something they want.

That's exactly the kind of a turnaround in perceptions that Mr. Alonso has been working to achieve with a menu of new charter schools and combination middle and high school programs that offer specialized instruction in areas such as science and technology. They give students more educational choices.

There's no magic bullet that will solve all the schools' problems overnight. And enrollment gains are just one sign of a school system's overall health; a lot of things have to come together to create lasting reform. But coupled with this year's dramatic rise in test scores, the fact that the system is finally growing again is another encouraging sign that Baltimore's public schools may be getting back on track.

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