The latest statistics from the Maryland State Department of Education show Baltimore City making steady progress toward increasing the number of students who finish high school. Last year city schools awarded 149 more diplomas than in 2011, and the city's 3.3 percentage point decline in dropouts was the largest in the region. That's great news for all the teachers, principals and school staff who have worked so hard to get the city's schools back on track.
Since his arrival in Baltimore six years ago, schools CEO Andrés Alonso has made boosting high school graduation rates a priority of his reform effort, and during that period the schools' dropout rate has declined by more than half. That's an astonishing achievement in a city where for decades barely half the class of entering ninth-graders managed to graduate four years later. Though the city's current dropout rate of 14.1 percent remains higher than the state's best-performing school systems, for the first time in recent memory it has begun to approach those of neighboring districts such as Anne Arundel, Harford and Baltimore counties.
State schools Superintendent Lillian Lowery was right in saying neither Baltimore nor Maryland as a whole can afford to rest on its laurels. But as she said, "the new data indicates we are on the right road," and we need to stay on it.
In Baltimore, the improvements have grown out of what Mr. Alonso has called thousands of hours of "unbelievably hard work" by hundreds of principals, teachers and staff who have devoted themselves to keeping as many students as possible involved in their studies until they earn diplomas. The cornerstone of reform has been a systematic, long-term reduction in the number of out-of-school student suspensions and in rates of absenteeism and chronic truancy. Mr. Alonso's team clearly deserves an "A" for that effort.
The schools chief has insisted from the beginning that kicking troublesome kids out of class rarely solves anything, because when they return — if they come back at all — they're even less likely to stick it out until graduation day. Instead, he has urged principals to adopt alternatives to suspension as a disciplinary tactic, such as in-school, after-school and weekend detention programs that keep students out of trouble and engaged with school without depriving them of valuable instructional time.
Mr. Alonso has also encouraged school administrators to coax chronically absent and truant students back to the classroom, if necessary by tracking them down at home with personal appeals to parents, relatives and caregivers. Kids who are chronically absent or truant are half as likely to graduate as those who show up regularly, but often students stay away due to circumstances beyond their control. They may have medical or dental problems or issues regarding homelessness or abuse. Connecting such students with services that help them cope can make it easier for them to return to school.
Meanwhile, Baltimore must direct more resources toward early childhood education and the elementary school grades so that students are properly prepared for the academic and social challenges they will face during their middle and high school years. Students who have to struggle to keep up in middle school usually continue to struggle in high school, but many of those difficulties can be avoided if children are exposed early on to enrichment programs that begin in pre-kindergarten and extend throughout the K-8 curriculum.
Finally, a long-debated change in state law approved last year will gradually increase the age of compulsory school attendance from 15 to 17. The legislature should have gone further and required attendance until students turn 18, but the new law nonetheless sends a powerful signal to young people that the state has an important interest in seeing more of them graduate. High school dropouts are more likely to be unemployed than graduates, and they earn less money, live less healthy lives and are more likely to be incarcerated than their better-educated peers — all of which costs the city, state and federal government dearly in terms of increased social services costs.
Overall, the evidence suggests that the reforms put in place by Mr. Alonso since 2007 are working to benefit hundreds of additional students each year whose prospects for going on to college or the work world have brightened immeasurably. Now the school system needs to work just as hard to keep up the momentum for change that produced that happy result.