As I’ve noted on this blog before, I was born and raised in Baltimore, the city of “The Wire” and John Waters. While I consider New Orleans home — and am proud to do so — I intensely love the city of my birth and am always quick to point out the similarities and connections between Baltimore and New Orleans, both historically and currently. In terms of public education, many of the same issues and trends that we see in New Orleans are also present in Maryland’s largest city. Both cities have predominantly poor and minority student populations, legacies of White Flight and under-service of the remaining students, and similar intensive reform movements in recent years. In its November 3 edition, Education Week ran an article about the black male graduation rate in Baltimore. We can learn quite a bit from that city’s successes.
Baltimore City Public Schools are 87.8 percent black and 83.6 percent poor. In the 2006-2007 school year, only 51% of black males graduated. By 2009-2010, that grew to 57.3% . While that is still short of the nationwide graduation rate of white males (73.7% in 2006-2007), it is still an impressive relative increase of 12.4%. How did Baltimore do it? From the article:
The district has put an emphasis on reducing chronic absenteeism, cutting down out-of-school suspensions, providing students a wider variety of public school options, and enlisting community partners — all in a push to keep more students in school long enough to graduate.
Importantly, “providing students a wider variety of public school options” – including charter schools that, as in New Orleans, are a popular reform strategy in Baltimore — is only one of several different factors driving improvement. In fact, that sentence is the article’s only mention of choice or charter schools. Contrast this to New Orleans, where, per this Times-Pic article, Paul Vallas’ primary (or, to the cynical observer, only) strategy for improving school performance and graduation rates in the lowest performing schools is to convert them to charters.
Instead of simply converting schools to charters, Baltimore superintendent Andres A. Alonso has taken a more comprehensive approach. (Indeed, while Baltimore is leaning towards a “portfolio school district model”, the chartering of schools is much slower and less widespread than in New Orleans.) The district’s executive director of student-support services is quoted by Ed Week as saying, “This work needs to be systematic, but it also has to be about the one-on-one work with students. … Someone in the building has to know that student’s story.” So in addition to structural changes like the addition of intervention services for at-risk students, the district is working to build a culture where “everybody feel[s] an electric charge when a kid fails to show up.” This district-wide culture of personal attention and high expectations is reflected in the work of principals and teachers, going door-to-door and using social media to track down students who have dropped out and convincing them to return to school. One 19 year-old drop-out who was convinced to return to schools said, “They got in contact with just about anybody who had a tie to me. [The principal] wouldn’t let up.” Through high expectations for both educators and students, along with partnerships with community groups that help telegraph those expectations (in addition to providing additional services) Baltimore has been able to achieve sustained increases in graduation rates for black males.
In New Orleans, we often talk about having high expectations, and many educators in schools across school types actively reinforce and communicate those expectations. But for improving student achievement in our lowest-performing schools, like those directly-run by the Recovery School District, we still look only at structural changes. We talk about charter schools, about governance more broadly, about longer school days and standardized curriculum.
Like us, Baltimore still has much work to do to increase student achievement across the board, including for black males. But as always, we can learn from others and look at the steps Baltimore has taken to beginning making changes for their most at-risk students.
And since it’s Friday, enjoy your weekend and your Thanksgiving holiday. Here‘s a weekend treat for y’all.