Baltimore school officials are considering reducing the number of credits needed to graduate from high school in hopes of keeping thousands of frustrated teen-agers from dropping out each year.
With about 1,700 ninth-graders in danger of failing, the school system proposal would cut the number of credits a student needs to move on from the ninth and 10th grades.
"We have to do everything to save these kids," said Karen Lawrence, principal of the newly formed School No. 425. If students can get through ninth and 10th grades, she said, "our chance of holding on to them is much better."
"Baltimore City has the lowest performing schools and the greatest number of credits required," Lawrence said.
City students need 25 credits to graduate, but that would be reduced to 21 if the school board passes the proposal at its meeting May 25.
Most surrounding jurisdictions require 21 credits, but the city had increased the number in recent years as a signal that it was raising expectations for student achievement.
The change would enable the school system to almost double the number of hours per year of English I and Algebra I for ninth-graders.
Because so many students come to high school unprepared, city officials believe ninth-graders can catch up only if teachers have more time to spend on the basics.
The changes are aimed at helping students in neighborhood high schools. Students at citywide high schools, such as City College and School for the Arts, would not be affected.
The change comes as the state moves toward requiring all Maryland students to pass tests in English, Algebra I, government and biology. City school officials are worried that if they don't properly prepare students to meet the demands of the tests, the number of students receiving diplomas will plummet.
"Within the context of the state standards and the high school assessments, it is probably inevitable that we make this sort of change," said school board member Sam Stringfield.
Stringfield said the city's dropout problem is similar to that in other urban school systems. "If a kid is going to drop out they hit the wall at ninth grade. They are academically behind. The textbooks they read are written on a high school level. They struggle to read fluently, and they are frustrated," he said.
About 45 percent of city students drop out of high school before graduation.
Lawrence said that when students feel they won't be able to obtain seven credits to move on to 10th grade, they become discouraged and may not return. "You drive up to any corner in Baltimore City. Go up to the thugs," she said, and ask when they dropped out. "They will say I was in eighth, but I was supposed to be in the 10th or the ninth."
Few objections appear to have been raised by parents and community groups.
The school board delayed a vote on the proposal this week when members of the Parent and Community Advisory Board said they needed more time to review it. They received the details Monday.
Kevin Slayton, president of the group, said he does not believe members will raise major objections.
He said the proposal speaks to the need to do more to help students stay on grade level as they move through the system.
"Ultimately the goal has to be not focusing on the ninth grade but the work that goes into the reform in elementary and middle school," he said.