Hundreds In Fast Lane To Diploma

New Schools Put Youths Who Are Behind On A Speedier Path

August 31, 2009|By Liz Bowie | Liz Bowie,liz.bowie@baltsun.com

When she was in elementary school, Maria Parris fell behind two grades, and since then has always felt awkward being so much older than her classmates. This year she is getting a chance to catch up in one of Baltimore's three new accelerator schools, which will give her a concentrated version of high school in two years.

"I am just glad I am here to get put in my right grade and graduate on time," said Parris, who is attending the Baltimore Community School.

The 15-year-old began to like school after she moved in with her grandmother and her home life stabilized during middle school. "I got more serious in school. I just like being at school," she said. But she wasn't entirely happy, feeling much older than the others around her and stuck behind, not expected to graduate until she was 20 instead of 18.

Parris and the 800 students who are starting in accelerator schools this year will be trying a relatively new concept in education that is designed to help 14- to 21-year-olds graduate who are at a higher risk for dropping out.

At the Baltimore Community School on Fait Avenue in Southeast Baltimore, students will only take courses that they will need to satisfy the minimum state requirements for graduation, rather than the electives that they would normally have during their four years. They will complete each grade in half a year.

While Baltimore city, along with Baltimore and Howard counties, opens schools today, the accelerator schools opened last week because the students will go to class two weeks longer each year.

Baltimore Community School Principal Brian Jones said the school will concentrate on teaching students skills they need to graduate. So in English, the students will focus on learning to write coherent sentences and paragraphs as much as on the plot of the book they are reading. And in math, teachers will make sure students have basic arithmetic skills before moving to algebra.

Students choose to go to the school and went through a lengthy interview process this summer, Jones said, and he did reject a number of applicants. He wanted to be assured that the students really wanted to graduate from high school and that they are willing to abide by a few strict rules.

Students must wear uniforms and cannot take cell phones to school even if they are riding an hour across town on the bus, and Jones checks every student at the door in the morning to make sure they are carrying a three-ring binder. The binder is supposed to be evidence they are serious about doing their homework, keeping their papers together and taking notes. The halls of the school are spotless, the classes are small (no more than 22 students) and there is none of the chattering common in a large city public high school.

"So far, I really like the teachers. They are very hands-on, and they work with you. They offer e-mail addresses and coach classes," said Parris.

Ethan Tyson, 18, decided to transfer from Frederick Douglass High School, a large neighborhood school, to the new school and has found it a lot easier without the crowds, distractions and noise.

Besides the dismal dropout rate that has haunted the city schools for years, about a quarter of the city schools' students have repeated at least one grade and 6.5 percent of city students are two grades behind. As a result, many students are "over-age" in their grades. The Johns Hopkins University education researcher Ruth Neild, who has studied dropouts, said being over-age is an independent predictor for students dropping out.

She said that most often, those who dropped out have been in high school spinning their wheels for a couple of years. They tend to leave when they are 17 because they have amassed only a few credits toward graduation.

So the school system was searching for ways to keep students in schools and found two models, one in New York and another in Philadelphia, that appear to have had some success. The school system then contracted with nonprofits Diploma Plus and One Bright Ray to open the schools here this year.

Besides the Baltimore Community School, two other schools are opening: Baltimore Liberation Diploma Plus High School on Dukeland Street and Baltimore Antioch Diploma Plus High School in the Fairmont Harford High School campus on Harford Road.

"We have brought models that have worked in other districts. We expect them to help us succeed with our students where previous efforts have failed," said schools CEO Andr?s Alonso. "They need flexibility and intense individualization that these schools should provide."

The schools receive the same funding as a regular city school, but the Open Society Institute has given a $675,000 grant to offset start-up costs.

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