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Magnet schools face tighter rules

The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso is making it harder for the city's elite magnet high schools to remove students who are struggling academically.

Alonso says that the schools are already getting the city's brightest students and that they have an obligation to work with them. Historically, he said, a significant number of students who began as freshmen at Polytechnic Institute, City College and Western High were not still enrolled four years later at graduation.

"That's unacceptable," Alonso said in an interview. "It represents a lack of accountability on the part of the school given the fact that they begin with students who by definition are the most academically able students in the city. ... My expectation is that they succeed with them, that they put in place not only extraordinary educational programs but also the interventions that are necessary."

From now on, high schools with academic entrance requirements must demonstrate that they are providing struggling students with academic and behavioral interventions, such as tutoring and mentoring. School representatives must meet with students and their parents before principals can recommend them for removal.

Last spring, before Alonso's arrival in Baltimore in July, the administration at City recommended the transfer of 99 students, most of them freshmen and sophomores. At Poly, 68 students were recommended for transfer, as were 23 at Western and 22 at Dunbar High.

Later in the summer, when Alonso learned of the large number of students due to leave the schools, he put an end to the practice, saying there needed to be clear criteria and a good explanation before a student could be removed. At City, only 31 of the 99 students ended up leaving. At Poly, 22 left; at Western, nine. None left Dunbar.

Despite the decrease in transfers last year, about 20 percent of the freshmen who started at Poly, City and Western in the fall of 2005 - this year's juniors - are no longer enrolled, according to a school system analysis. At Dunbar, 12 percent of the junior class has left.

System officials emphasize that students transfer for many reasons: They move or decide a school's program doesn't interest them. About 90 percent of the students from those junior classes are enrolled somewhere in the Baltimore school system, according to city statistics.

Still, Alonso says that he is concerned. A committee of system officials has spent this academic year establishing the criteria for student transfers, requiring the school to first provide extra assistance and ensuring that parents are involved in the process. While parents can withdraw their children at any time, schools can remove students only if all other options have been exhausted and the evidence is clear that the setting isn't meeting the students' needs.

Parents at the schools have mixed feelings about the change of practice. Some pointed out that, unlike schools without entrance criteria, the elite schools are not designed to keep students in high school for longer than four years, making it difficult to serve those who are falling behind.

Karen Stokes, an executive board member on City's PTA, said the system needs to look carefully at the schools' admissions requirements if it is going to make it harder to remove a student.

Admissions decisions are based on students' middle school attendance, grades and scores on a standardized test. But Stokes said that an "A" at one middle school isn't always equivalent to an "A" at another and that some middle schools are sending students who are more prepared than others. She would like to see the test scores weighted more heavily.

"As a City College parent, I'm perfectly comfortable with keeping kids who get into City. I think we have an obligation to make this work for students who get in," said Stokes, executive director of the Greater Homewood Community Corp. "At the same time, we have to be really scrupulous about whether the criteria we're using is appropriate and whether it needs to be changed over time."

System officials said they asked the schools' principals this year whether they wanted to recommend a change in entrance criteria, and none did.

Stokes said she's seen students who are struggling at City but whose parents don't want them to leave because it is a safe school and the neighborhood schools they would otherwise attend are perceived as unsafe.

Anthony Williams, the PTA president at Western, said he sought extra help for his daughter when she was a freshman because her middle school hadn't offered algebra and she felt she was starting off behind her classmates. During his tenure as PTA president the past three years, he said, he's referred at least a few dozen parents to outside tutors to help prevent their children from having to leave the school. Williams protested a few years ago when the city school system admitted students to Western and Dunbar who hadn't met the admissions requirements.

"You see a lot of students who just didn't make it," said Williams, whose daughter is now a graduating senior. "It breaks the child's spirit because Western is a school they wanted to go to, but, academically, it's just too hard. It's not that they can't do it. It's that they didn't have the start [in middle school] to be successful."

Earlier this year, Alonso took on another issue involving access to the city's flagship schools. In February, at the CEO's recommendation, the school board approved a policy change requiring the schools to give city residents first preference in admissions, even if nonresidents rank higher on their applications. Previously, qualified city students could be turned away if nonresidents had better grades and test scores, a policy that Alonso called an injustice. Now, nonresidents are permitted to apply only for spots that city students do not fill.

The city's vocational high schools - Carver, Mergenthaler and Edmondson-Westside - also have academic admissions requirements and are affected by the changes. Another prestigious city school, Baltimore School for the Arts, admits its students based on their performance at an audition. While it has admitted more nonresidents than any other public high school in Baltimore, officials said its student retention rate is extremely high.

Under a new funding structure that will take effect this summer, all city schools will be funded based on their enrollment. Roger Shaw, the system's executive director of secondary schools, said it will be to principals' financial advantage to keep as many students as possible enrolled.

At Dunbar, where Shaw was principal until he was promoted in December and where retention has typically been higher than at other elite schools, he said students failing two or more classes were candidates for transfer. But the transfer was the last resort, Shaw said. First, he would meet with the parents, have the students sign a contract pledging academic improvement, pair the students with tutors and arrange for them to make up missed credits in summer school. He would monitor their progress constantly and, often, their status would improve.

"I tried to hold onto my students," he said. "Once we accept a kid, then we own a kid for four years. So what do we have in place to sustain that child and make sure that child graduates from our school?"

sara.neufeld@baltsun.com

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