Head of the class

Our view: Baltimore schools are graduating record numbers of city students

the rapid pace of reforms could make the city a model for the nation

October 03, 2011

The rapid improvement during the last few years in Baltimore City's graduation rate is both proof that the reforms taking place in the school system are working and a lasting boon to the city in the form of a population of young men and women who face a much brighter future than they would have otherwise. Figures released by the city school department last week show that since 2007, the high-school dropout rate has been cut by more than half, while the proportion of graduates has risen steadily. More children than ever are choosing to stay in school until they earn diplomas.

This is a remarkable improvement for a school system that historically has had one of the highest dropout rates in the state, while graduating barely half the students who enrolled in ninth grade each year. The city paid dearly for that failure, which left thousands of young people facing the prospect of joblessness or underemployment on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, while helping fuel an epidemic of violent crime and substance abuse that crippled communities and destroyed lives.

City schools CEO Andrés Alonso made reducing the dropout rate a top priority when he took over the system in 2007. On the theory that kids who are pushed out the classroom are less likely to return, he urged principals to drastically curtail out-of-school suspensions for minor disciplinary infractions and set up an alternative detention center inside the school system headquarters. In 2008, he went further by asking principals to track down all students who had left their schools and persuade them to come back — a herculean task but one that paid dividends in the number of students who ultimately stayed in the system. At the same time, schools that continued to lose students were faced with loss of funding, which gave principals a powerful incentive not to push kids away.

Mr. Alonso was convinced that if the school system couldn't stop hemorrhaging students, nothing else it did could be successful. Virtually all the reforms he introduced — from opening new charter and transformation schools, to expanding the number of schools offering AP courses and encouraging more kids to take the PSAT and SAT exams, to mandating that every kid to fill out a college financial aid application — were aimed at creating the expectation of high school graduation as an integral part of school culture and giving students and parents a broader range of options for achieving that goal. He even briefly experimented with paying kids a token sum to take preparatory lessons for the Maryland High School Assessments; the response was so good that students continued enrolling in the one-on-one tutoring program even after the financial incentive was dropped.

Having put the schools on a clear and sustainable path to improvement, however, Mr. Alonso now faces the equally daunting task of ensuring that as many students as possible can graduate on time and that those graduates are prepared for college or the work world. The goal must not just be a diploma but the opportunity to succeed in college or in a career that allows graduates to become productive members of society. Too many kids still arrive in high school without having mastered crucial math and reading skills; if they are to succeed, elementary and middle school programs are going to have to do a better job preparing them for high-school level work. At the same time, the high schools have to be even more forward-looking by offering advanced courses, SAT preparation and opportunities for ninth-graders to take the PSAT.

There are still huge challenges facing the system. But the latest city graduation numbers suggest that the reforms instituted over the last four years are beginning to have an impact and that the school system as a whole is finally getting back on track. This is a tremendous achievement for the city's educators and students, and one that, if continued, will make Baltimore's urban renaissance a model for the nation.

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