On the day after the presidential election, the halls at Baltimore's Forest Park High School were filled with joyous students, whooping and carrying Barack Obama banners.
But in the library, a group of 35 juniors and seniors sat quietly and listened to a presentation about the University of Maryland, College Park, a school 40 miles down the road yet one that most of them viewed as out of reach. Some years, Forest Park doesn't send a single student to the state's flagship university - an ignominious feat repeated at high schools across Baltimore.
"They're afraid," Hakeem Godwin, a senior at the West Baltimore high school who is applying to Maryland, said of his classmates. "They think it's too hard to get in."
In recent years, Maryland and the Johns Hopkins University, the state's two most prestigious and selective universities, have started programs to recruit Baltimore public high school students, expanding outreach and offering scholarships. The results have been mixed. Enrollment is up overall, but the numbers remain woefully small.
A decade ago, Maryland's freshman class of 4,000 included just 38 graduates of Baltimore public schools. This year the number is up to 57. In 2005, Hopkins started an ambitious program called Baltimore Scholars, offering free tuition to any city public high school graduate who could earn admission. That first year, 23 city students enrolled. But this fall the number was down to 13.
"There were fewer applications from city public schools, and the quality of the applicant pool was off a bit as well, which meant fewer were admitted," said William Conley, dean of enrollment and academic services at Hopkins. But he said the decline was part of expected fluctuations for the program and that, overall, Hopkins is pleased with its results.
The fitful progress at Hopkins and Maryland is not for a lack of effort. Rather, it reflects the difficulties in overcoming years of indifference to city students, the economic straits of many city families and the struggles of Baltimore schools in getting significant numbers of students up to the level that they can compete at the nation's top universities.
More than half of city high schools do not offer advanced placement courses - staples of the curriculum for students going to top colleges. And for African-American students who grew up in a school system that is 89 percent black, going to a mostly white school like Hopkins or Maryland can be a culture shock. Historically black colleges like Morgan State University and Coppin State University feel more comfortable to many students.
"Maryland is not identifiable to our community," said Randal Brewer, 21, a senior at College Park who graduated from Poly. In high school, she said, Morgan was thought of as "Poly's 13th grade."
For every 100 students who enter Baltimore City high schools, just four will graduate college within six years of starting. City schools CEO Andres Alonso has described the numbers as pitiful and vowed to improve them. The system is putting more college counselors in high schools and trying to better motivate students as early as middle school. For many families, though, the bottom line is cost.
"But for money, people would be going all over the place," said Britni Lonesome, 20, a Hopkins junior who said she could not have afforded the school without Baltimore Scholars. Hopkins estimates total annual expenses for students at $53,000. "In Baltimore, people don't have that much money. So when it comes down to it, it's how much scholarships people get and what they can afford."
Hopkins has marketed the scholarships by visiting every Baltimore high school and by inviting city students to an open house on campus. The impact has been pronounced, officials said. Early in this decade, Hopkins would get about 40 to 45 applications a year from city public school students. In 2003, just three city students enrolled; it was five in 2004. But in 2005, the first year of the program, 121 students applied and 23 enrolled.
"The idea was we lower the barrier of price perception, that was objective No. 1," Conley said. The second goal was to raise students' expectations of where they could go to college, even if that meant some would choose another top school over Hopkins.
"Our idea was not that every high-ability, ambitious student in Baltimore city schools should come to us," he said. Some students whom Hopkins admitted went to Georgetown instead, or the University of Maryland, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The scholarship covers the $37,000 tuition, and many students receive financial aid beyond that.
In 2006, 19 city students enrolled at Hopkins under the Baltimore Scholars program; in 2007, 22 enrolled. This year's drop to 13 isn't alarming, Conley said. "We look at the 13 as just part of the normal ebb and flow in a normally competitive admissions environment," he said.