Five years after starting a major reform of the school system, Baltimore school officials are taking the first substantive steps to improve high schools in the fall, overhauling two schools and planning to open three new small ones.
But the new programs so far affect a small portion of the 14,000 students at the city's neighborhood high schools, where 71 percent drop out between ninth and 12th grades and low academic standards persist.
The most significant changes are taking place at Southern High School in southern Baltimore and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in East Baltimore, projects that together are expected to cost at least $40 million in state and city funds.
Southern is to be transformed from a failing neighborhood high school into a magnet for students interested in information technology.
Dunbar will use the resources of its next-door neighbor, Johns Hopkins Hospital, to build a rigorous college-preparatory school focusing on the health professions.
Meanwhile, three small high schools - tentatively planned to open at Charles Plaza downtown, at an existing school building on Northern Parkway and at excess space at Thurgood Marshall Middle School in Northeast Baltimore - are aimed at reducing the large enrollments at other schools.
Christopher N. Maher, education director of Advocates for Children and Youth, believes that the school system's overall high school reform plan is sound.
"It is unfortunate that a lot of kids' needs will not be addressed, but at the same time there has to be a slow, steady approach," Maher said. "If the school system tried to overhaul all of their high schools overnight, then [the reforms] won't stick and they won't work."
In October, the school system's chief executive officer, Carmen V. Russo, pledged to open four revamped high schools this fall - Southern, Southwestern, Northern and Lake Clifton/Eastern - as part of a five-year, $55 million reform of neighborhood high schools.
But only one of those schools, Southern, will have been completely redesigned when students arrive next school year.
Northern and Lake Clifton/Eastern will see some changes, Russo said, but they likely will be modified further in coming years.
Work to improve Southwestern High School will be put off until at least next year.
Russo said she has delayed some of the planning for individual high schools to allow them to take advantage of a $20 million donation pledged in January by 10 charitable foundations. The money will go toward planning and the overhaul of each neighborhood high school during the next five years.
Even before the announcement of foundational support for high school reform, school officials had begun offering interested eighth-graders the option of attending the new technology high school.
"Clearly, Southern and Northern couldn't wait," Russo said. "But I am trying to work through the process with the other schools."
Focus on technology
The new Southern High School, unofficially named Digital Harbor High, will look far different when 384 freshmen walk through the doors from middle schools throughout the city this fall.
Anne Carusi, who is in charge of city high schools, said the school is designed to prepare students for computer science courses in college, and to turn out students who can become computer technicians after graduation.
Any student was allowed to enroll regardless of his or her middle school academic record, although some will be required to take summer classes.
Students will choose one of four concentrations: networking systems, programming and software development, information support services or interactive media/video.
Ninth-grade class sizes will be 20 to 25, and the school day will be extended. Each student will be given a laptop computer, and the school will have state-of-the-art technology laboratories.
The plans sound good to Terry Meyers, the mother of Southern 10th-grader Jamie Meyers. But her son will not be part of the new school because the program is being phased in over four years.
While her son's classmates suffer from a shortage of textbooks, toilet paper and copy paper, the ninth-graders who in the fall enter Digital Harbor High - on the other side of the building - will have modern facilities and equipment, Meyers said.
"The kids whose school it is are not getting the things they need to get by every day," she said.
Carusi said she is aware of the concerns of parents, but she said the school system will try to alleviate the problem. "We don't want to have the haves and the have-nots," she said.
Dunbar students also will face two schools in one.
The school, which accepts students from throughout the city who meet certain standards, always has had higher academic standards than neighborhood schools.
But East Baltimore political leaders and alumni have envisioned a school that is as prestigious as Polytechnic Institute or City College, and have pushed Russo for several years to raise standards.
On Tuesday, the school board voted to have Russo appoint an advisory board that can help with fund raising and other school activities. In addition, entering freshmen will be put into a much more rigorous academic program than currently offered.
At Dunbar, as at Southern, the new curriculum will include four tracks from which a student may choose: biotechnology, nursing, medicine and pharmacy.
Dunbar already focuses on those fields, but Carusi said the standards will be raised. For example, she said, instead of preparing students to be nurses' aides, the school will give students the background they need to pursue a college degree in nursing.
Raising standards at Dunbar and Southern will require intensive summer classes for those students who are underprepared: At least a quarter of Dunbar's freshman class next school year will not meet the school's minimum entrance requirements.
Proposals for Northern
Officials continue to grapple with what to do for Northern, the system's largest and perhaps most chaotic high school.
One option is to divide the building into two high schools with separate entrances and administrative and teaching staffs. Another is to put ninth-graders in an area apart from the rest of the student body.
A small new high school also might be opened at the school system's Professional Development Center at 2500 E. Northern Parkway, which has extra classroom space.
The school board has tentatively approved using that space for a high school, but awaits community reaction. A hearing on the issue will be held at the Professional Development Center from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Tuesday.
The school system has not signed a lease for a school at Charles Plaza.
If plans for the smaller high schools go through, about 200 entering freshman would be taken from Northern, reducing the school's population to fewer than 2,000.
Maher is critical of the school system's failure so far to include the public in its planning in the high school reform process.
"It cannot be shoved down the throats of people. They have to feel they have some input into the process," he said.