Alonso hastens to correct Obama's graduation numbers

Rate is 63 percent, not '30-40 percent,' he says

March 04, 2010|By Liz Bowie | liz.bowie@baltsun.com

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso was polite but clear: President Barack Obama made a mistake when he suggested in a speech this week that the city's graduation rate was "around 30, 40 percent."

In fact, Alonso said on Wednesday, the rate is 63 percent by the most conservative state guidelines, and by his accounting is higher. And, more importantly, he said, Obama's description glossed over improvements during the past two years.

Obama announced on Monday a new education initiative that includes an attempt to increase graduation rates. He said that nearly one in three students nationwide don't finish high school. "In cities like Detroit and Indianapolis and Baltimore, graduation rates hover around 30, 40 percent - roughly half the national average," he said.

Alonso tried to set the record straight during a conference on the city's graduation rate. The president's words, he said, were "a kick in the stomach."

He said there is still too prevalent a view that Baltimore is just like the television program "The Wire," when the reality is different.

Alonso has helped coax hundreds of dropouts back to school and opened alternative schools for struggling students in an attempt to get them a diploma. Not only has the graduation rate increased, he said, but there were about 900 fewer dropouts last year than two years before.

An administration official said the president's remarks were intended to broadly address the dropout challenge, and were not meant as a review of progress in the city and elsewhere. The official said that staff had contacted Baltimore officials and wanted to learn more about the progress the city is making.

Debates over graduation figures are always fierce, in part because the data is so slippery. The president was using data from the America's Promise Alliance, which says that 42 percent of city students graduated in four years in 2005. That percentage is based on the number of ninth-graders compared with the number of 12th-graders four years later. But in Baltimore, many students flunk a class or two in ninth grade and are officially held back. That means that the ranks of ninth-graders are artificially swollen every year.

Soon, the numbers will be more accurate. Last year, all Maryland students were given an identifying number, allowing them to be tracked individually.

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