City graduates may come to doubt diplomas' value


With graduation ceremonies throughout this weekend and over the past week, the Baltimore City Public Schools have sent about 3,600 high school seniors into the world of work and college.

Yet as they mark this annual milestone, reformers and educators are fretting that some of these young adults are ill-prepared for the opportunities that lie ahead.

For their part, the graduates are eager to move on and test their diplomas' value. What they find may disappoint them. And with little wonder:

At Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, the School for the Arts and Western High -- among the city's most selective schools -- each senior is graduating.

That's not true, however, everywhere in Baltimore. Some 300 seniors citywide failed to graduate. At Northern High, one of four seniors failed to graduate. At Patterson and Southwestern, one of five didn't make it. Fifty of Douglass High's 175 seniors did not earn diplomas.

While neighboring school districts brag of students with combined Scholastic Assessment Test scores of 1,400 and higher of a possible 1,600, many Baltimore students don't fare nearly as well despite earning good grades. One valedictorian at city high school had a combined score of 780. The top student at another barely crossed 900.

And while some 3,500 of the city's 3,900 seniors received high school diplomas (and about 100 special-education students received certificates), many students never made it that far.

A total of 9,051 students started city high school as ninth-graders four years ago. More than half left the schools. No one keeps track of what became of them.

These are not merely statistics, but symptoms of persistent low expectations and an inadequate curriculum, students and education experts say. By funneling the city's best students to ,, the most selective schools -- Poly, Baltimore City College, the School for the Arts and Western -- those remaining end up being graded in relation to their classmates.

Illusion of competence

The result is an illusion of competence: graduates with high marks for marginal performance. They will face an uphill struggle against better-prepared competition in the marketplace.

One benefit of the declining number of high schoolers in Baltimore is that more of those who remain are "seriously considering college," said Lara Hall, spokeswoman for Baltimore's nonprofit CollegeBound Foundation.

In 1988, only 26 percent applied to colleges, she said. Last year, about 52 percent did.

Yet motivating a population that includes many poor and undereducated families to value college is tough, Ms. Hall said. Persuading students to shoulder the work of preparing can be difficult, too.

"There are kids in Baltimore City public schools who have the savvy and know what they want," she said, "but most of the kids just don't know. It's too overwhelming, and many students may be ready, but they don't have the tools."

Taketta Glass, 18, felt ill-equipped to take the SATs and intimidated by the prospect of doing poorly. Her fear influenced her career choice.

"I was scared, and that's one reason why I didn't take it -- because I didn't have to take it to become a cosmetologist," said the 1995 Dunbar graduate. "I picked something I liked doing, and something that would not require that I take that test."

She plans to attend the Gordon Phillips Beauty School in the fall. She dreams of owning her own salon but knows she'll need business courses someday.

"Our school started in ninth grade with [SAT] preparation, but I think they should start earlier," she said. "They gave us preparation, but itdidn't prepare us for what was on that test. I have friends who said it was hard."

Last year, Baltimore students' average SAT verbal score was 353, math was 389. The city averages for this year are not yet available. Maryland's averages were 429 verbal and 479 math.

Low expectations

Corean Robinson, a 1995 Walbrook High graduate and student leader, has learned that the roots of the problem include low expectations and unfocused or absent community support.

She noted that Baltimore sets higher standards for the students at the "citywide" college-preparatory high schools, compared to the neighborhood schools, which include her alma mater.

"At a lot of the zone schools and others, if a student gets 1,000 on the SAT -- or even 900 -- they think that they've done top-A work," said Ms. Robinson, 18. Her activities took her to events across the state, where, she said, "When I heard county students say they got 1,100 or 1,200, and how they were disappointed they didn't get a better score, I went, 'Whoa.' "

Students need more support from the adults who are in a position to help, she said. The former student member of the Baltimore school board, and president of the Associated Student Congress of Baltimore City, said, "I saw money spent on things that were not having anything to do with education, and things cut that did affect the education.

"In the county schools, the parents wouldn't go for that. The parents get together and raise the money to make sure that in the 1995 school year, [students] are not reading 1979 textbooks." said Ms. Robinson, who scored 1,280 on the SAT. She plans to combine computer science and music technology studies when she enters Clark-Atlanta College this fall.

Many share her view.

At Poly, City College, Western and School for the Arts last week, many graduated with thousands of dollars in financial aid and admissions to universities here and throughout the region, including the Ivy League schools. Three School for the Arts seniors were accepted to the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York.

Several seniors said the tradition of scholastic achievement endures at those schools because excellence is demanded by the teachers and failure holds very real consequences.

Students who don't measure up at these schools are not retained, and thus aren't likely to show up as a failure statistics at graduation, some educators said.

Valued degrees

"I believe in the value of a degree from City, and Poly and Western and School for the Arts," said Robert C. Embry Jr. president of the Abell Foundation, which funds many projects in city schools. His daughter, Elizabeth, will graduate from City College this weekend at the top of her class; she has been accepted at Yale.

High expectations aren't enough, Mr. Embry said. Improving curriculum and intervention programs to stanch the flow of dropouts is essential.

"The citywide schools have admission standards, and not every child can get into them," he said. "Most children coming out of middle schools are not doing work at a level that would permit them to."

Dianna Rogers-Ford, chairwoman of the guidance department at Northwestern High School, said, "Our education should be comparable to that they receive at a citywide school -- especially in English, math and science. A lot of our kids are diamonds in the rough. Instead of lowering standards, we need to increase them and we need to provide the tutoring and enrichment."

Off-campus pressures don't have to deter achievement, not if families and school officials are willing to do the extra work to make success possible, she said. Many of the programs exist already in the Baltimore school system -- but all students and faculty don't take advantage of them.

For example, teen-age parents are one of the populations most in danger of dropping out. But Forest Park High has had success in graduating more of them, said Timothy Dooley, assistant principal and senior class adviser. He insisted they be responsible students, and helped them manage course loads as long as they were straightforward with him.

"As long as they would call me and say they had a parenting crisis, and say. 'I'm going to be late.' "

Those who chance the job market instead of college likely will earn less than their parents did with the same high school diploma. Technical and vocational skills learned in high school .. will help some survive. However, many so-called "soft" skills prized in the service and information economy aren't in the typical high-school curriculum: planning, negotiating, training, teamwork, interpersonal and customer-relations skills.

"An education that turns out a 1973 product is turning out a product that just isn't valuable in 1995," said Arnold Packer, a Johns Hopkins University researcher with the Institute for Policy Studies specializing in education. "We need a different product. It means a change in curriculum."

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