Staying the course

For years, Baltimore City schools have had one of the highest drop-out rates in Maryland, along with one of the lowest percentages of students earning high school diplomas. That failure of public education has had a profound effect on the city and its residents: It condemned thousands of young people to joblessness or underemployment on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder, while helping fuel an epidemic of violent crime and substance abuse that destroyed neighborhoods and lives.

As a result, it's impossible to imagine a Baltimore renaissance that doesn't make radical transformation of the city's schools a priority. The city will never prosper so long as its schools fail to prepare students to take full advantage of the opportunities created by economic development. And one of the key measures of successful reform will be in how well the city fares at reducing what historically has been an appallingly high drop-out rate while boosting significantly the number of students it graduates each year.

Fortunately, recent reports showing that over the last three years more students have been graduating from city high schools while the drop-out rate has fallen sharply suggest the changes introduced by Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso may be bearing fruit. If recent trends continue, it would mark the first time in decades that public education in Baltimore could be said to be on a path toward steady and sustainable improvement.

Drop-out rates have been declining across Maryland, but they have taken a particularly steep plunge in Baltimore City since 2007, according to the state Department of Education. Last year, nearly 1,500 fewer students left city schools than in 2007, and the dropout rate among African-American males fell even more precipitously, thanks to concerted efforts by school officials to reduce truancy by opening new alternative schools and in some cases going door to door to persuade dropouts to return to the classroom.

At the same time, overall city high school graduation rates rose slightly, with both boys and girls registering solid gains. Evidently, more students are choosing to stay the course, a decision that will pay big dividends down the road both for them personally and for their city.

That said, Baltimore still has a long way to go to catch up to the rest of Maryland — its 66 percent graduation rate still lags well behind the statewide average of 86.5 percent — let alone with school systems in other developed countries whose graduates will be competing with ours for jobs in the knowledge-based global economy of the 21st--century. That's one reason it's so important schools be allowed to put into effect new provisions of the proposed teachers union contract aimed at accelerating growth in student achievement. If anything, the city needs to ratchet up the pace of change even further.

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