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Baltimore City sees growth in graduation rates as statewide measures decline

FILE - A tassel with 2023 on it rests on a graduation cap as students walk in a procession for Howard University's commencement in Washington, Saturday, May 13, 2023. Two conservative groups are asking a federal court to block the Biden administration’s plan to cancel $39 billion in student loans for more than 800,000 borrowers. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)
Alex Brandon
A tassel with 2023 on it rests on a graduation cap.

Baltimore City students are graduating at the lowest rate in the state. But the district’s rates are also improving more than the state’s.

In a presentation to the school board Tuesday, city leaders said that overall graduation rates and those for select student groups increased by around two percentage points — while statewide rates declined, or increased by a smaller margin.

“Graduation rates are not easy to move,” said Theresa Jones, the city’s chief achievement and accountability officer. “So this gives us a sense of that accelerated rate of improvement that we're seeing, but certainly not to negate the fact that there's still a lot of really important work to do to get more and more of our students across the finish line.”

Just over 70% of Baltimore City high schoolers graduated last spring, compared to 85.8% statewide. That represents a 1.9-percentage-point increase for the city district, and a half-percentage-point decrease for the state.

Hispanic, Black, multilingual and disabled students in Baltimore City all graduated at over two-percentage-point higher rates than last year. State graduation rates increased by less than one percentage point for Black and disabled students, and decreased by nearly one point for Hispanic and multilingual students, Jones said.

Baltimore City Publics Schools leaders credited these student group improvements to expanded summer classes, the hiring of 23 school-based graduation coordinators for ninth graders, and efforts to decrease chronic absenteeism.

Stacy Place Tosé, the interim chief of schools, said the district hired four staff to specifically target absenteeism this year — and will hire two more by next year. The district has also invested more in extracurricular activities, like middle school sports, to incentivize student attendance.

“We're making sure that our school social workers, our nurses, counselors, homelessness specialists, and school behavioral health clinicians are a part of the process,” Place Tosé said. “We're looking at each student individually to make sure they are getting the needs that their individual needs met.”

City school officials say there’s a lot of room for improvement. Board members especially expressed concerns about the 41% graduation rate for multilingual students.

Chief Academic Officer Joan Dabrowski said incoming language proficiency plays a big role in determining student success.

“When students come to us younger and earlier, and go through our English language development support, we see that benefit pay off,” she said. “When students come to us later in time, that timeline shrinks for how quickly we want to be able to get that English language development secure.”

Dabrowski said 2023 graduating students were also saddled with COVID-19 pandemic disruptions for their entire high school career.

“We know that many of our young people needed to take on additional responsibilities at home or outside of the home during this time period,” she said.

Statewide, just over 55% of multilingual students graduated in 2023. And over half of the state’s high school drop-outs were Hispanic or Latino students.

In a March 26 state education board meeting, members called for a more robust exit interview process to track why students are dropping out at such high rates.

“If they're leaving, why are they leaving? Where's the gap?” asked board member Rachel McCusker. “Is it because they need to work? Is it because they're leaving and going back to their country of origin? Is it because they don't feel connected to their school community?”

The state does not currently collect data on why students drop out.

Bri Hatch (they/them) is a Report for America Corps Member joining the WYPR team to cover education.
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