City's graduation rates: a success story still being written

Baltimore's public schools are being recognized as "revitalized" and on an upward trajectory in a national report released last week.

As part of the March 2011 Grad Nation Summit, bringing together more than 800 education and policymaking leaders in Washington, D.C., Baltimore was among four school systems cited for significant progress over the last decade. The report, "Building a Grad Nation: Progress and Challenge in Ending the High School Dropout Epidemic, 2010-2011 Annual Report," highlights that the high school graduation rate in Baltimore City Public Schools has increased approximately 12 percentage points since 1996 (16 percentage points if students who take five years to graduate are counted). It also appears that future rate gains will be driven by improvements among African-American male graduates. In 2006-07, the city schools had almost equal numbers of African-American male graduates and dropouts. By 2010, the ratio was nearly three graduates for every dropout.

While the city schools have a long way to go to reach the national goal of a 90 percent graduation rate by 2020, they have established a solid base for continued improvement.

Over the last 15 years, spurred by the state, the school system introduced new governance structures that retooled management and accountability. New resources from the state and the city's Board of School Commissioners, jointly appointed by the governor and mayor, contributed to this new approach. Concurrently, institutions of higher education, local and national foundations, and community organizations collaborated with three superintendents and other Baltimore educators to reconfigure schools and instruction.

The improvements are palpable. After years of decreases, enrollment stabilized in 2006 and increased by 2,000 students in 2009-10. The number of disciplinary events fell by nearly 58 percent between 2004 and 2009. Enrollment in Advanced Placement courses more than doubled from 2005 to 2010, with the number of students earning "passing" grades of 3 or above up 25 percent.

Baltimore City Public Schools' upswing is a story about reversing a system's decline with the help of community, city and state partners. The school system has sustained this effort over 15 years, despite obstacles that began half a century ago with middle-class flight to the suburbs.

The new Grad Nation report comes at a time when Baltimore and Maryland leaders are working to sustain economic progress and expand job creation despite the recession. Although Baltimore's improvements are continuing, and the state as a whole garners praise for its schools, state and local leaders need to redouble efforts to end the dropout crisis in Maryland and prepare all its students for college and career.

Despite Maryland's relative wealth and well-educated population, 20 percent of its high school students fail to graduate each year. Nearly 10,000 of the 12,000 members of the Class of 2009 who did not graduate (within five years) lived outside of Baltimore City. A graduation rate that is only in the top third nationally makes Maryland less competitive than it could be and is costly to the state with lost revenues and increased social services resulting from high numbers of dropouts.

University System of Maryland Chancellor William E. Kirwan recently warned that Maryland — with its large biotech industry and science and technology-driven economy — must address the problem of low expectations or risk losing its competitive edge. Only 28 percent of the state's eighth-graders are proficient in science as benchmarked to national assessments.

Efforts like those in Baltimore and throughout the state help low-income students climb the ladders of academic achievement and economic opportunity. They are paying off but need to be accelerated. U.S. estimates show that a worker with a bachelor's degree will make at least $20,000 more every year than a high school dropout.

To raise the graduation rate to 90 percent by 2020, Maryland must achieve a 1 percentage-point gain each year — or 2 percentage points annually for five years to put the state in the forefront of change. A report released last November shows that gains of this amount are possible at the state level. Tennessee, for instance, raised its graduation rate by 15 percentage points in less than a decade.

To make similar progress, Maryland needs to put a couple of strategies on the fast track. The first is statewide early warning and intervention systems designed to keep students on the graduation path, prepared for college and career. The state also needs to support emerging efforts to combat chronic absenteeism, often the first step toward dropping out. Maryland is one of the few states that tracks students who miss at least 20 days of schools a year (the definition of chronic absenteeism), but it does not require districts to heed these numbers or act on them.

Baltimore' s progress, like that of other districts highlighted in the new report, is beginning to instill confidence that America can educate its way out of the recession by lowering its dropout rate and producing high school graduates for the workforce of the future. With the lives of young Americans and the country's future place in the world at stake, the hopeful tale of Baltimore City's educational progress serves as a challenge to other communities.

Joanna Fox is deputy director of the Everyone Graduates Center at the Johns Hopkins University and John M. Bridgeland is CEO of Civic Enterprises, a public policy firm in Washington, D.C. They are co-authors of the report, "Building a Grad Nation."

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