For at least the past half-century, Polytechnic Institute, City College and Western High School have easily attracted the best minds in the city. But today, gifted students like Brian Eggleston see opportunities elsewhere.
"I had good grades so I could have gone to Poly or City," the senior said. But he chose Digital Harbor High, which was developing a good reputation. "I heard about the technology [courses]," he said.
Baltimore began upending the structure of its public high schools in 2002, and today's middle-schoolers can pick from nearly four dozen schools across the city rather than being assigned to a comprehensive high school in their neighborhood. Digital, which is in Federal Hill, is the second-most-popular choice among the city's eighth-graders, even though it didn't exist seven years ago. Neither did Coppin Academy in West Baltimore, but it has four times the number of applicants as open places.
On the forefront of a national trend, the city began replacing its large, chaotic high schools seven years ago with smaller schools of 500 to 800 where it was believed students would get more attention and a better education. With a declining enrollment that gave the district the flexibility to quickly create new schools in underused buildings, Baltimore moved fast. New schools of all types have blossomed across the city.
"Most kids in the district are in a school of their choice that is not just a default school," said Robert Balfanz, a Johns Hopkins education researcher at the Center for Social Organization of Schools. "I don't think many other cities have gotten to this tipping point yet."
Today, 10,687 students are attending a school that didn't exist in 2002 and 8,038 students are in the old, remaining comprehensive or vocational high schools. Another 5,400 students attend selective high schools such as Poly, where students must meet attendance and grade requirements to be accepted.
Whether the newly minted schools have produced better results is difficult to determine because there has been no reliable study done yet. However, the city's graduation rate is up, its dropout rate is down and some educators who have been watching the process closely say high-schoolers are better off today than they were a decade ago.
"What Baltimore is doing is remarkable. It is eliminating the ZIP code victim," said Christopher Maher, chief academic officer for the Friendship Academy of Engineering and Technology and the Friendship Academy of Science and Technology.
Each spring, eighth-graders sign a form listing their top three choices for high schools. If more students request a school than there are places, which has happened at Digital, ninth-graders are chosen by lottery.
Data released by the school system show parents and students appear to be quickly adapting, becoming savvy shoppers who pick as their first choice the highest-performing, safest schools while eschewing the least successful. Applications to the lowest-performing schools, such as Dr. W.E.B. Dubois High School, Reginald F. Lewis and the Institute for Business and Entrepreneurship, are declining.
Many observers are cautious about the change, however, saying the work that is going on in these high schools to get students to graduation is still very difficult. Some of the schools are criticized as having no new vision or ideas behind them and as remaining just smaller versions of the large, failing schools.
And large numbers of students still fail ninth grade. Last year, 37 percent of ninth-graders, or 2,600 students, did not earn enough credits to move on to 10th grade. Those students who do move on are still having difficulty passing the High School Assessments that are required for graduation.
'Huge and impersonal'
Just a decade ago, students in Baltimore, as in most cities and large suburban districts, went to their neighborhood high school unless they qualified for a place at the selective schools such as Poly, City, Western, Dunbar or School for the Arts. A two-tiered system existed that siphoned off the most promising students into the higher tier while everyone else was assigned the lower tier of big, comprehensive high schools that held 1,500 to 2,500 students. At least half of the students at the comprehensive high schools dropped out by senior year. The schools became unruly, with fights, drugs, sexual activity and gambling commonplace in the halls.
"We knew size mattered," said Jennifer Green, who taught at Lake Clifton High School and went on to direct the high school reform from 2005 to 2007. "The schools were huge and impersonal. It would reek of marijuana in lots of hallways."
In 2003, encouraged and supported by $20 million from local and national foundations, the city began dividing its largest high schools. Northern High School was first. During the summer of 2003, it was closed and then divided into three schools with three principals.