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Sharp split found in graduation rates

The Baltimore Sun

The disparity in graduation rates between Baltimore and its suburbs is the most extreme in the nation, according to a report scheduled to be released today by America's Promise Alliance.

Slightly more than a third of students in Baltimore schools graduate from high school, compared with 82 percent of students in the surrounding counties, according to the report.

That difference is the greatest for any city in the nation, the report says. Baltimore's suburban counties have graduation rates well above the national average, and the city has the fourth-lowest rate, the group found.

Marguerite W. Kondracke, president of the alliance, called the gap a "stark differential."

The alliance, a partnership of business groups, nonprofit groups and advocates, was founded by former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and his wife, Alma.

The graduation rates calculated for the report contradict city school system estimates, and figures published by the Maryland State Department of Education. The state reported last year that Baltimore's graduation rate was 60 percent. Baltimore's estimate puts it closer to 45 percent, said Ben Feldman, research, evaluation and accountability officer for the city.

Whatever the graduation rate is, Feldman said, it is too low. Andres Alonso, the school system's new chief executive officer, is determined to increase it, he said.

The alliance is expected to announce today that it will hold summits on how to reduce the dropout rate - which the group thinks has reached crisis proportions - around the nation.

"We are trying to say this is not just a school system problem or a parent problem, but a problem that involves the whole community," Kondracke said.

In addition to school officials, the alliance wants to involve business people, parents and other community representatives in the summits, she said.

The alliance is joining advocates across the country who are saying that high school curriculums should be revamped to offer more rigorous and engaging courses for students, and Kondracke said the group also is calling for more support for youths considered to be at most risk.

When young people don't have health care, mentors or tutoring, they might still fail, she said.

"We are saying that supporting the needs of our most vulnerable and disadvantaged youth is just as important as strengthening the school," Kondracke said.

The dropout and graduation rates in major cities have long been disputed.

Most education experts agree that the wide variations in reported rates have to do with the way the calculations are made from raw data rather than with different ways of reporting of the data. Most agree that there is no foolproof method of calculating the dropout rate in urban systems, in which students move from school to school frequently.

The number of students in Baltimore has fallen as some leave for private, parochial and suburban school systems. Recordkeeping in those cases is not foolproof, so students might graduate from a county school but be listed as dropouts from city schools. In addition, many city students graduate in five years, not four, but could be counted as dropouts.

States around the nation have agreed to begin tracking students more closely by giving each student an identification number, which will allow them to track every student by 2011.

"There is little doubt that graduation rates have to be improved in cities throughout this country. That is why I am so pleased that Dr. Alonso has made this such a priority," said Maryland schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

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