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Ready to learn more [Editorial]

Baltimore City schools chief Gregory Thornton says making sure every student is ready for college or work when they graduate from high school will be his Job No. 1 when classes begin next week. For Mr. Thornton, college readiness is a quick shorthand for all the things that need to be done long-term to keep the city’s school reform effort on track, and first among them is getting students and their parents to recognize that just being a high school graduate isn’t enough to guarantee success in today’s economy.

If the city is to attract new families, business and investment, it’s got to have a school system that gives its graduates a leg up on a career or job. That means preparing young people to keep on learning after high school and changing the culture of the schools in a way that orients students toward success in some form of postsecondary school education.

Yet as The Sun’s Erica Green reported recently, 46 percent of city grads who enter Maryland four-year colleges and universities as freshmen have to take remedial courses before they can even begin to earn credits toward a postsecondary degree. That’s twice the rate of neighboring school districts, and it’s clearly a reflection of the inadequate preparation they received in high school. But the problem goes even deeper than that.

The reason students don’t get the skills they need for college in high school is often that they weren’t properly prepared for high school work by the middle schools they attended — or for middle school by their elementary school experience. It’s a vicious cycle in which deficits at each grade level accumulate the longer they aren’t addressed. Over time students can fall so far behind that it’s practically impossible for them to catch up.

That’s why focusing on college readiness really means focusing on upgrades across the entire K-12 instructional program, not just in the high schools. Mr. Thornton thinks he knows how to do that by reorienting the school system’s culture toward postsecondary education and giving young people a vision of what they can achieve after they earn their diplomas along with the supports they need to turn that vision into reality.

Mr. Thornton says the schools must work with parents and communities to engage children at an early age with more rigorous course work that excites their imaginations and encourages them to develop habits of intellectual curiosity and perseverance. He wants more students to participate in honors programs and international baccalaureate programs; to take PSAT and SAT exams so they know what kinds of scores they will need to get into selective colleges; and to enroll in AP courses that give them practical experience with college-level material along with a clearer sense of how much more there is to learn after they leave high school.

He also believes the schools must create new ways for kids to get caught up and back on track. “We need to offer credit recovery opportunities, extended school days and to constantly keep them on track with their grade level peers because that’s what allows them to stick to it and succeed,” he says. “We’ve got to teach them that K-12 is just one leg of a much bigger race to be run.”

This year Mr. Thornton and his team will be focusing on improvements in three major areas: Academic counseling; career and technical education; and athletics, which he sees as a motivator to keep kids in school. He’s hired a college readiness specialist to determine where schools need more support and created an online counseling tool to help students develop individualized academic and career plans. He’s also developing an industry certification program that will allow students who aren’t headed to college to earn credentials qualifying them for private sector jobs when they graduate and an initiative for student athletes who want to participate in NCAA sports.

Mr. Thornton admits there is no silver bullet that will magically boost the college and work-readiness of city graduates and that progress is only possible through a multifaceted effort. After-school, weekend and summer enrichment programs that develop students’ skills and engage their enthusiasm are one of the best ways to boost academic performance, he believes. But most of all, it’s a matter of instilling in kids a desire to do great work by always being ready to learn more, and then giving them the resources and support they need to achieve their goals.

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