It started with being late.
Brandan Howard would show up here at W.E.B. DuBois High School 2½ hours after school started—if he came at all. After a while, he’d fallen behind in all his classes.
“When I realized there was so much I had to do to graduate, I dropped out,” the 19-year-old said.
But the Baltimore public school system wasn’t content to let Mr. Howard go. It kept tabs on him after he left last spring and urged him to return.
“They got in contact with just about anybody who had a tie to me. She wouldn’t let up,” he said, looking at a smiling Delores Berry-Binder, DuBois High’s principal.
School leaders in Baltimore have mounted an offensive over the past three years to keep more students in school and on track. Last month, news came that the effort has produced a welcome dividend: Black male students are driving a marked increase in the district’s graduation rate and a decrease in its dropout rate, and showing improvement at a faster clip than the rest of the system.
“Typically, that’s the hardest group to move. Oftentimes, when we see average graduation rates going up, it masks little or no improvement in African-American males,” said Robert Balfanz, the co-director of the Everybody Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University here. “In this case, the fact African-American males are leading the improvement is notable.”
The 82,000-student district’s on-time graduation rate for black males increased from 51 percent in the 2006-07 school year to 57.3 percent in the 2009-10 school year—a 12.4 percent increase, district data show. Its overall graduation rate increased from 60 percent in 2006-07 to 66 percent in 2009-10—a 10 percent rise. Black students make up 87.8 percent of the district’s enrollment.
Nationwide, black males lag behind all other students except Native Americans in high school completion, according to a June report from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center. That report, using federal data from the 2006-07 school year, found that just 46.7 percent of African-American male students graduated on time that year, compared with 73.7 percent of their white male counterparts. (“U.S. Graduation Rate Continues Decline,” June 10, 2010.)
Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools, said Baltimore’s trends are notable not only in the district’s graduation and dropout rates, but also in its performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a set of congressionally mandated tests that serve as a national barometer of student achievement.
The district has scored far higher than would otherwise be expected for a district with such concentrated poverty (83.6 percent), and the scores for black students match those of districts that have shown more success over the years, Mr. Casserly said.
“Something is going on there that warrants the attention of both practitioners and researchers,” said Mr. Casserly. He said the district’s effort to build support systems for black males is “more targeted and concentrated than you see in other communities.”
Andrés A. Alonso, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore schools, said an array of factors helped drive the improvement.
The district has put emphasis on reducing chronic absenteeism, cutting down out-of-school suspensions, providing students a wider variety of public school choice options, and enlisting community partners—all in a push to keep more students in school long enough to graduate.
“It’s a hopeful moment,” Mr. Alonso said last week. “We are not going to cede ground.”
Schools in the city also have been held responsible for creating alternatives to suspension and building youth-development programs that give students opportunities to learn leadership skills, said Jonathan Brice, the district’s executive director for student-support services. District suspensions decreased from 16,500 three years ago to 9,721 last school year.
“This work has to be systematic, but it also has to be about the one-on-one work with students,” Mr. Brice said. “Someone in the building has to know that student’s story.”
The district attributes its success in part to its “Great Kids Come Back” campaigns, which have sent volunteers knocking on doors coaxing dropouts back to school.
“In many school systems, kids can leave and drop out and it’s treated as a nonevent,” Mr. Alonso said. “I want everybody to feel an electric charge when a kid fails to show up.”
Similar initiatives are under way in other districts, including Minneapolis, which launched a “We Want You Back” effort last year.
Ms. Berry-Binder, DuBois High’s principal, has a number of students like Brandan Howard in her school that she and her teachers have recruited back into the building. It’s meant going door to door sometimes, and, at other times, using Facebook and other social-media tools to track down students.
“Isn’t this what we are supposed to do?” Ms. Berry-Binder said. “I know [the students] can do it, so why not give them a chance? If you are committed, this is what you do.”
Mr. Alonso, who took the helm of the Baltimore system in 2007, said one key is changing the expectations of adults.
“There was always an assumption we were going to lose kids,” he said. “That was not tenable as a starting point for conversation.”
Karen Lawrence, the principal of the city’s Heritage High School, said the culture has indeed changed. It was common practice for decades to show the door to those 16 and older who came to school infrequently, had major discipline issues, or were overage and undercredited.
“We started trying to hold on to them longer, and then we started looking to see what we could offer them,” Ms. Lawrence said.
That has meant structural moves, such as creating an intervention period where the emphasis is on helping students, as well as practical efforts such as buying 600 binders so every student had a notebook.
Students’ mindsets had to change, too.
“Kids internalize high expectations, just as quickly as they internalize low expectations,” Mr. Alonso said.
D’Antre Larry, a junior at the city’s Friendship Academy of Science & Technology, said that without the encouragement and inspiration of his principal and others, he’d likely be on the street looking to make a quick dollar. But the staff at Friendship showed him other possibilities.
“I’m glad I came here,” Mr. Larry said, “because look at me now—I’m the person I’ve always wanted to be in life.”
The district has help in its push for improvement. Ronald Covington, who directs the High Expectations program for the community organization Child First, said district partnerships with community groups like his help Baltimore telegraph to the community that it’s serious about its efforts.
“We can speak a language the community understands,” he said. “Young people who were defiant and disruptive,” Mr. Covington added, “can be stabilized and put on a plan for success.”
Special coverage of district and high school reform and its impact on student opportunities for success is supported in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the November 03, 2010 edition of Education Week as City’s Black Males Stay in School