After replacing principals and pledging to raise standards at Polytechnic Institute and City College, Baltimore school officials acknowledged what parents and alumni of the two premier public high schools have contended for several years: Neither is living up to its vaunted reputation.
While the schools boast a century-old history of sending graduates to top-tier colleges and producing city leaders, student achievement recently has lagged behind the area's best suburban high schools and top magnet high schools in other cities.
Of the students who graduated in the Class of 2003, 46 percent from Poly and 39 percent from City had earned a degree from a two- or four-year college six years later, rates that top school officials concede are far too low.
"How can I possibly be satisfied?" said Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso. "These should be flagship schools, not because of their legacy. … Kids should be getting the education they deserve."
Alonso, who has focused on the city's lowest-performing schools, removed both principals this month, just two weeks before the start of the school year. The principal at Western High School retired, and a new principal will work there as well. The changes leave leadership at three of the city's top selective high schools in flux as parents and the community have begun clamoring for the schools to improve.
While Alonso and the system's new chief academic officer, Sonja Brookins Santelises, expect higher standards at Poly and City, they say they will leave it to the school communities to decide on changes.
"I don't have a three-year plan," Santelises said. "It is not about coming in and imposing a plan."
But parents, teachers and alumni say they are pleased that City and Poly are receiving much-needed attention.
Alonso "is putting a lot of pressure on these selective high schools to do better," said Karen Stokes, a City parent and the head of the Greater Homewood Corp. "I am glad to see that that expectation is there, and if it requires a change in leadership at these schools, then so be it."
The quality of those schools, she said, is a drawing card that attracts families to Baltimore. "Having high standards and high expectations is absolutely essential if we are going to keep people in the city," Stokes said.
For decades, City and Poly, as well as all-girls Western, have educated the city's top civic leaders, who have proudly supported their schools. Poly graduates have included writers H.L. Mencken and Dashiell Hammett; radio talk-show host and former state Sen. Clarence M. Mitchell IV; and businessman Alonzo Decker. City alumni include Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin and Reps. Elijah E. Cummings and C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger, as well as former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke and former Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
While there is no entrance examination for the schools, they require the highest scores on a citywide grading system.
Until now, the schools have not received the same kind of scrutiny from Alonso as some of the more troubled schools in the city.
"We have to do the same level of analysis and push that we are doing at the other schools," Santelises said.
Information gathered by the school system and presented to alumni of the two schools shows that some key areas of student achievement have declined there.
At City, the average combined SAT score fell by 57 points during the past three years; this year it was 1325 out of a possible 2400. Only five graduating seniors did well enough to obtain the International Baccalaureate diploma last spring, down from 12 the year before. City is the only high school in Baltimore to offer the prestigious program.
Good results for those who work hard
City also isn't sending as many graduates to four-year colleges as the school administration thinks it should. According to school system figures, 76 percent of City graduates in 2009 enrolled in a four-year college, compared with about 96 percent from selective schools in Boston, where Santelises previously lived. And too many of the remaining graduates are enrolling in trade schools, compared with graduates of similar schools in Boston, officials say.
At Poly, the combined average SAT scores were 1508 in 2009, significantly higher than City's, but they have dropped 40 points in the past several years.
Fewer Poly students are taking Advanced Placement classes, and fewer are passing the tests than in many suburban high schools. At Poly, 44.7 percent of the tests resulted in scores of 3 (considered passing) or better, a rate far lower than in the best nonselective high schools in surrounding counties.
At Dulaney High School in Baltimore County, the pass rate on AP exams is above 80 percent for most subjects offered. At Centennial High School in Howard County, 421 students took more than 1,000 exams in 2009, and 91 percent resulted in scores of 3 or better.