There are many factors that can delay or prevent Baltimore young people from completing their high school education. Poverty, transportation problems, family responsibilities, health concerns, and interactions with the juvenile justice system all contribute to Baltimore City Public Schools’ high population of older students who do not have enough credits to advance. These students are most at risk for dropping out, which will make it more difficult for them to join the workforce and earn a living wage.
Since its founding, Open Society Institute has worked on various strategies to keep young people connected to schools. In 2012, in coordination with City Schools, OSI selected three existing schools to become “High Value High Schools”. The initiative helped these schools—Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical, Frederick Douglass, and Benjamin Franklin—to meet the individual needs of students at risk of dropping out and to increase graduation rates and post-secondary success significantly, particularly for African-American male students. In addition, OSI advocated for and facilitated the opening of a fourth High Value High School, Bard High School Early College, which allows students to take college courses and earn an associate degree while in high school. Its first graduating class had a 94% graduation rate, in contrast to the state rate of 88% and the city rate of 71%.
These schools allowed flexible schedules and supported accelerated coursework, either to target deficiencies or to enable advancement. They eliminated eligibility requirements for students with disabilities, which enabled students with a range of achievement needs to get appropriate instruction, and provided early college exposure and essential life skills training.
The success of the High Value High Schools led the district to institutionalize this model through its Re-Engagement Center, a centralized office designed to assist young people who are disengaged or are returning to schools after an extended absence caused by the myriad impediments associated with poverty. So far, through the Re-Engagement Center, OSI and the district have integrated the High Value High Schools model into 12 additional high schools.
The center offers older students who do not have enough credits to advance the opportunity to earn additional high school credits through on-line classes and summer and evening coursework. Of the nearly 1,150 students enrolled in credit recovery classes, 82% have passed their classes or are still engaged with coursework. In the past year, of the approximately 540 students who were referred to the center after disengaging from their coursework, 420 re-enrolled in a city school. And nearly 80% of students who return to school through the center graduate.
By helping students identify the support and educational environment that would be most appropriate for them, the center minimizes the likelihood of students again disengaging from school. Students are also linked to social workers who assist them in removing barriers to high school completion in connecting to a variety of school-based and community resources.
“Many students who enter the Re-Engagement Center have had very negative life experiences, but we serve as constant reminders that they are not ‘damaged goods,’” says Roger Shaw, executive director of the Center. “If we can provide students with opportunities to transform their current trajectory, they can tap into their limitless potential.”
OSI and other area funders continue to support the model and City Schools’ CEO Sonja Santelises supports expanding it to every high school in the district.
The Re-Engagement Center represents not only a recognition of the severity of the problem of student disengagement, but also the urgent need to create a way to reverse this trajectory. “Our greatest hope in starting the High Value High Schools initiative was that, one day, the district would take the model under its own aegis and create what is needed for the thousands of students who fall through the cracks,” says Karen Webber, director of Open Society Institute’s Education and Youth Development program. “The Re-Engagement Center has surpassed our most optimistic expectations.”