Black male students in Baltimore are staying in school and receiving their diplomas in higher numbers, school officials said on Wednesday, raising hope that future generations of city youths will gain skills needed for success in life.
District officials said that the performance of black male students over the past three years has been the driving force behind the improved statistics for Baltimore schools. In 2007, for every black male student who graduated from high school, one dropped out. Now, three are graduating for every one who leaves school.
"This is a major accomplishment that deserves the attention of all of the city," said Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. "Baltimore schools continue to improve because we set higher expectations."
While the graduation rate is still considered far too low, the data offer a remarkable portrait of a population long considered vulnerable. Education leaders have worried about how to rescue African-American male students in urban school districts, and have said that their lack of success leads to joblessness, crime and poverty.
Baltimore Urban League President and CEO J. Howard Henderson said the effect goes beyond the classroom because it means that more black men will have the education to go to college and get a job. "By graduating they can participate in the legal economy," Henderson said. "We know we can cut the pipeline to incarceration."
City schools CEO Andrées Alonso credits a number of factors for the decline in the dropout rate. He said a push began several years to go out on the street and invite dropouts back to school. While the number who initially returned was not large, he said, he believed it provided a signal to the community that the school system was serious about keeping its students.
In addition, the city has started a number of alternative schools, such as one that helps students who are behind a grade or more graduate in as little time as possible. That has given hope for students who did not want to stay in school into their 20s.
Over the past three years, the dropout rate for black males has decreased by 56 percent. Between 2007 and 2010, the rate declined from 11.9 percent a year to 4.9 percent a year, meaning that 593 black males dropped out last school year compared with 1,439 three years before. The dropout rate for all city students is 4 percent, half of what it was in 2007.
In addition, Baltimore graduated 57.3 percent of its black male students in 2010, a 12 percent increase from 2007. The graduation rate for all city students was 66 percent this year.
African-American girls still graduate at far greater rates than boys. In 2010, 74 percent of African-American girls graduated from city schools, compared with 67 percent three years ago. And 3 percent of girls dropped out last year compared with 7 percent three years ago.
Alonso said he believes the new state requirement that students pass the High School Assessments to graduate has been a surprising factor in helping the graduation rate. Far from keeping students from getting a diploma, he said, the requirement may have helped because it sets a clear standard for students to attain.
And the bridge projects, which have been seen as a loophole because they are an alternative for students who have not passed the test, are helpful in teaching students the material, he said. Many students received a lot of personal attention because they had to work one on one with a teacher to complete the project.
Alonso said the school system is now looking at making improvements to its curriculum that have been standard in other suburban districts for years. Those changes would include offering Algebra I to all middle-schoolers and requiring that biology, physics and chemistry be given beginning in 10th grade rather than the last two years of high school.
"What has happened is a real transformation of our ability to organize around what is a real national problem," said Alonso.
Baltimore's progress on lowering its dropout rate "is a noteworthy national accomplishment," Robert Balfanz, an expert on dropouts for the Johns Hopkins University Center for Social Organization of Schools, said in a statement. "This should serve as a challenge to other districts, that rapid and large gains are possible."
The rate is still too high, said Alonso, but he said he sees signs that the graduation rate will improve next year.
The city's graduation rate of 57.3 percent for black males is still below Baltimore County's, which has the third highest rate for an urban system in the country, according to the Schott Foundation, which released a national report recently comparing black male graduation rates.
In 2008, the Schott report said, Baltimore County graduated 67 percent of its black male students and Montgomery County graduated 65 percent.
"This is a national problem and the city has really focused attention on it," said Bill Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education. "They have spent time trying to keep African-American male students in school and make sure they get through. That is where growth and achievement needs to occur in Baltimore."