Study: To prepare kids for college, all city schools should resemble Poly, City College

Baltimore students need "more rigorous math, reading and writing instruction, expanded and improved college counseling, more college-prep courses and more peer support" to be ready for college, according to a report released last month by The Fund for Educational Excellence, a local nonprofit focused on city schools.

The city's high school graduates entered college way behind their peers. Seventy-two percent of students landed in remedial math classes at college while 38 percent required remedial writing and 38 percent needed remedial reading, according to the report.

They also struggled to graduate from college. Fewer than half completed a four-year degree program over six years. Those going for an associate degree fared even worse; fewer than 10 percent graduated over the six years measured. Some of that has to do with academic preparedness but some of that also has to do with having enough money to power through college in the standard four- to six-year time frame.

The Fund ultimately wants all Baltimore City Public Schools to operate like its selective schools, such as like Baltimore City College and Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, the two schools with the highest rates of college enrollment. (More than 90 percent of City College students attended a four-year college after graduation and 99 percent of Poly students go on to higher education, according to their respective websites.)

Additionally, the report calls for allowing more student independence in classrooms, increasing the number of counselors, partnering with community organizations, creating an alumni network, and offering more Advance Placement courses and higher-level math courses to increased college readiness.

"One of the things we hear really clearly in this report was kids feeling that there was an inequity in access to rigor," said Roger Schulman, the president and CEO of the Fund for Educational Excellence. "We do want to be sure that kids who are prepared for and want to access more rigorous types of course work are able to do so."

Such an overhaul would appear to be a difficult undertaking for a school system that earlier faced a budget deficit and laid off more than 200 staffers, but Schulman contends all these structural changes could be made using the school system’s current resources.

"I'm not talking about creating a cost that the system isn’t already creating," he said. "I think we can do this in a way where this in not solely the responsibility of the school system, but a responsibility of the community."

"[There should be a] deep, deep analysis on where dollars are being spent and figuring out if the way dollars are currently being spent reflects the priorities of the school system," he went on to say. "There are ways to think about how we leverage existing dollars inside the school system potentially with philanthropic dollars, both locally and nationally, to help us try to think through creating a more rigorous system for our kids."

The report, titled "Building a Bright Future: Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools," compiled information from 27 focus groups consisting of 225 Baltimore students, former students, and parents. Facilitators asked participants what they thought would be useful for students and families for college and what schools can do to better prepare students for their post-secondary lives.

Those conducting the study did not consider poverty's effects on academic success. Schulman acknowledged a large portion of the students in the focus groups were from low-income families. "The effects of poverty are wide reaching," he said. "There are social [and] emotional needs that kids are saying they need. That's partly why we've been so clear to say we don't think this is strictly an academic problem."

Last year, participants in a monthlong series of "kitchen table" conversations held by the nonprofit expressed concerns about school standards being too low. The results of those discussions were later published in the report "City Speaks: Community Voices on Baltimore Schools."

Schulman feels there's one thing everyone can agree on.

"It's clear we aren't doing well enough for our kids, so thinking about how we do better is something that I think almost everybody in this city who works with kids is trying to think about," he said. "There's lots of room for discussion about the types of recommendations we make and what we hope this is going to do is start the conversation."

A copy of the report, "Building a Bright Future: Understanding College Readiness in Baltimore City Public Schools," can be found at The Fund for Educational Excellence's website.

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