Baltimore Schools Experiment Raises Expectations and Results

Written by Patricia Hawke for

In 2004, the Baltimore schools joined with Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Social Organization of Schools in an experiment in education. The ten-year, cutting edge program was developed to stem the dropout rate throughout the United States. 
The first to enter the program, the Baltimore Talent Development High School is one of five Baltimore schools now in the program with a total of 50 such schools across the nation.  These Baltimore schools operate through cooperative agreements with Hopkins, and the principals have full control over staffing. The Hopkins program focuses on the freshmen grade, where the problems for future dropouts generally begin. Massive intervention is given to those Baltimore schools freshmen who enter these Baltimore schools, reading and doing math at elementary school levels.  The approach to learning is not particularly innovative, concentrating on the basics; but the curriculum is rigorous and expectations are high.
Talent began with 137 freshmen and added a class each year. They now have 401 students. The original freshmen are now juniors, who will graduate in the spring of 2008. Talent has a dynamic principal in Jeffrey Robinson, a product of the Baltimore schools. He is given whatever he needs to do the job by the Baltimore schools and Hopkins.  Robinson hires the teachers and staff he wants (though there are restrictions on firing staff, do to union contracts), and they let him do his job without interference.
The Baltimore schools and Hopkins experiment is working — the dropout rate is down, attendance is high, and there is a waiting list for both students who wish to attend Talent and teachers who wish to teach there. 
Talent is located in a dingy and deserted part of the city — not usually a location to attract so many students and teachers.  Attendance is by lottery, and students need not meet any special requirements.  These Baltimore schools students are from 41 different middle schools across the city. All are black and many are from low-income families. Twenty percent of their students require special education learning, as compared to the Baltimore schools’ 15 percent average.
Talent has an amazing retention rate. Of the original freshmen, 113 are now juniors. The majority of the 24 who left transferred to other schools. Only five students have dropped out of school — that is a 3.6 percent dropout rate.
Students cite the school’s positive atmosphere and many incentives. These Baltimore schools students encourage each other to excel, the environment is calm and positive, and there is a clear code — “do the right thing, you get rewarded.” Teachers offer tough love, vigilance and spontaneous nurturing. Baltimore schools students repeating grades are given the opportunity to catch up quickly, without repeating the entire term. Fun field trips encourage school attendance, which must be at 94 percent for these Baltimore schools students to participate. Talent’s overall attendance rate is nearly 95 percent with eleventh graders showing up more often than freshmen.
Robinson expects an estimated 60 percent of the original freshmen to attend four-year colleges two years from now. The Baltimore schools’ rate is 44.5 percent. He expects 30 percent to attend two-year colleges. The Baltimore schools’ rate is 10.7 percent. Students who graduate from Talent and are accepted at Hopkins (just 2.5 miles away) are given a four-year college education free of charge.
Teachers clamor to work at Talent. Robinson’s own mother pestered him for two years before getting a teaching position there. Teachers cite the supportive administration, the hard-working staff, orderly atmosphere, and respectful student body as welcome changes from other Baltimore schools in which they have worked.