A Reformed School System: The Pride of Baltimore City

It’s stunning how bad the school system is. It takes your breath away.

This assessment was made by Ed Burns, a former Baltimore public school teacher and co-writer of acclaimed television series The Wire, prior to the airing of the 4th season in 2006. The season focused almost exclusively on stories concerning the city’s failing school system.  

As far as educational attainment is concerned, however, Baltimore is barely recognizable from the city it was back then. Its high school system has come leaps and bounds from where it was before, particularly when it comes to two of the most crucial performance metrics—graduation rates and dropout rates. Indeed, when examining some of the measures taken during this period to boost high school student and graduate numbers, one might reasonably conclude that the ingenuity of the policies adopted by Baltimore City provides a shining example for other cities looking to bolster their own records on education.

Arguably, it’s the improvement in the dropout rate that has been Baltimore’s biggest achievement in recent years. According to the 2016 Report Card—a detailed annual assessment of student achievement across the 24 districts of Maryland state—the dropout rate for Baltimore City students between grades 9 and 12 was more than halved from 2005, when it was at 10.98%, to 2016, when it was a mere 5.06%. More indicative than the percentages are the actual numbers of students dropping out—which precipitously declined from 2996 to 1232 during the same 11-year period.

Rising high school graduation rates during the decade are almost equally as impressive, again as measured by the Report Card. The four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, which measures the number of students who graduate in four years with a regular high school diploma (as a percentage of the number of students who form the adjusted cohort for the graduating class), has consistently improved since 2010. The graduation rate was 61.46% at the start of the decade; by last year, the rate increased to 70.65% (meaning that 70.65% of Baltimore students who began high school in 2012 graduated in 2016).

Although graduation rates declined marginally for the class of 2015, this was mostly attributed to a new Common Core curriculum. The resumption of improving rates in 2016, moreover, suggests that 2015 was a minor blip and that students are capable of meeting the educational standards established by the new curriculum.

Reforming Baltimore’s high school education system—a process which gathered significant pace from 2007 onwards—has propelled the city towards the nation’s upper educational echelons according to certain measures. For example, the US Census Bureau’s 2011-2015 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates, which was released in December 2016, shows that 82.54% of Baltimore residents aged 25 and over are in possession of a regular high school diploma, GED or alternative credential.

Baltimore even beats Los Angeles and New York, which have reported rates of 75.47% and 80.35% respectively, while for a few specific census tracts within the city, the rate even exceeds 99%.

What’s behind Baltimore’s success?

As a city, Baltimore has played host to a series of well-documented and long-running systemic social problems. According to 2010-2014 Census Bureau data, for instance, 24.2% of Baltimore City residents in 2014 lived below the poverty line of $23,850 for a family of four, and the rate for children living under this threshold was a deeply troubling 34.60%. Of the 24 jurisdictions in Maryland State, therefore, Baltimore City ranks in last place by this poverty measure. Violent crime is another prominent issue, with Baltimore experiencing its deadliest year ever in 2015.

The very existence of such problems have informed a significant bulk of the city’s education policies, and has ultimately led to the pursuit of more progressive measures to ensure children remain in school.

For instance, the city acknowledged the serious problems that arose from instilling a zero-tolerance policy that criminalizes minor violations of school rules. In particular, the “school to prison pipeline” is a nationwide trend identified by the American Civil Liberties Union which observes the trend of children who are shut out of the education system eventually ending up in juvenile and/or criminal justice systems. Furthermore, research has shown that such punishment does little to improve student behavior, even contributing to students falling further behind academically.

As such, a complete overhaul of Baltimore’s disciplinary policies was conducted in 2007, under the city’s then-newly appointed school board CEO Andres Alonso. For instance, no long-term suspension or expulsion would receive his approval until he was officially informed on the matter. This helped to shrink the total number of school suspensions in the city, from 26,000 in 2004 to under 10,000 by the end of 2010.

It is the visionary policies of Alonso himself that many credit with inducing the turnaround in Baltimore’s school system. Between 2007 and 2010, Alonso’s reforms triggered a halving of the dropout rate, from 9.37% to 4.07%. There was also a 56% fall in dropouts for the city’s black males. Some of Alonso’s most effective policies included:

  • Directing community organizers to go out to the streets and invite dropouts back to school. While perhaps not quite as effective as hoped, Alonso believed the move demonstrated to the community the school system’s unwavering commitment towards keeping its students in school.
  • Creating “alternative” schools that helped students who had fallen behind by a grade or more to graduate as soon as possible, and thus provide disheartened students with a renewed sense of motivation and hope.
  • Overhauling teachers’ remuneration contracts to ensure their pay was more aligned with student performance, their own performance evaluations, and courses they took that could boost their teaching skills. The pay-for-performance contract was hailed by some as a model for the entire the nation.
  • Establishing Expanding Great Options in 2008-09, an initiative to review and improve the city’s portfolio of schools. New schools were opened, the lowest-performing ones were closed (26 out of 198 by December 2010), and the highest-performing establishments were expanded. 
  • Stability at the top — Prior to Alonso’s appointment, Baltimore had seen six superintendents come and go in the span of only six years. Alonso himself lasted for six years, however, finally resigning in 2013, which made him one of the longest-serving, big-c­ity school district superintendents in the US.
  • Holding public meetings that included parents, librarians and many other community leaders, often as a way to strengthen Alonso’s mission of delivering results. After being first appointed, Alonso went on a “listening tour” across Baltimore, holding such community meetings at more than 150 of the city’s 192 schools. This provided much-needed integration and engagement between the school system and Baltimore’s wider community.

The continuation of the Alonso legacy

Of all the creative policies implemented during the Alonso era, it is arguably the efforts to involve the wider Baltimore community in important school matters, and to treat families as equal partners in the development of their children, that most resonates today. In the words from a letter the former CEO wrote to Baltimore families:

“You—parents, family and community members—are essential to the education of our children; we need to treat you like real partners. And we will engage organizations that are trusted in the community to help you stay connected to your children’s school.”

The greatest rewards from such efforts came in February 2013, when over 3,000 families from the city, the mayor and other public officials rallied outside Maryland State House to urge the legislature to pass a bond bill granting $1.1 billion for badly-needed school construction and repairs. Passing both houses with large bipartisan majorities, the bill was signed into law by May.

Today, community schools are among the most visible legacy of greater family and community engagement in the education system. Operating under the Family League of Baltimore, one of the stated aims of the community schools concept is to “establish a network of partners and community resources to promote student achievement and family and community well-being.” They serve considerably more of those students who qualify for the free and reduced-price meal program (FARMS); provide extra English language tuition and post-graduation services and, crucially, employ a full-time coordinator to act as a liaison between school leadership, families, and community-based organizations. Reflecting their popularity, community schools have grown rapidly in number, from 11 in the 2012-13 school year to 51 in 2016.  

That’s not to say that Baltimore schooling does not continue to face problems. Although the number of suspensions has continued to fall during the current decade, last year saw a concerning uptick for the city. However, the strength of the community and the threat of losing 10 years of overwhelmingly positive progress are providing a greater sense of resilience in Baltimore’s school system to meet such challenges head-on.

How can other cities improve high school educational attainment?

In many ways, Baltimore is a beacon for how cities can approach schooling in an original and progressive manner, as well as how a school system can be strengthened through greater integration with the wider community. Of course, not every city is in the kind of dire straits that Baltimore faced around 10 years ago. Nor is there an Andres Alonso on hand in every city to inspire such a dramatic reversal of events. Nevertheless, the policies implemented by the Alonso regime, as well as the work being done today, serve as helpful guidelines for other struggling school systems:

  1. Use data to analyze the impact of current disciplinary methods on dropout and graduation rates.
  2. Recognize the problems in your own city and how they might influence education. Poverty and crime are two of the biggest in Baltimore that threaten the educational potential of students, and as such, a bulk of the most successful policies are designed with the recognition of such problems in mind.
  3. Be creative. Bold, "outside-the-box” approaches towards school discipline, for instance, continue to be adopted in Baltimore, and in some cases, they appear to be paying off. One notable example even went viral on social media: the meditation room that was installed in Baltimore’s Robert W. Coleman Elementary School last year is helping disruptive students resolve conflict peacefully. This has resulted in zero suspensions in 2016, compared with four suspensions in 2013-14.
  4. Make tough decisions if they’re required—the concern over suspensions last year was just one of the problems that led to the replacement of the previous schools CEO Gregory Thornton.
  5. Personalize the issues. The current CEO, Sonja Santelises, recalled in 2015, “We had the heads of student support, school safety, school counselors—30 people in a room with the numbers flashed on a screen every two weeks. There are faces that match each one of those data points. We're responsible for every single kid in the system." Such sentiment was also displayed by Alonso, who Santelises also previously worked under.

More than any one measure, however, cities should remember that it is the ultimate success of the children that should remain the clear focus of any discussions on education—which is precisely what Andres Alonso sought to prioritize. According to the head of The Education Trust Kati Haycock, new schools chief Santelises brings to her role an "unshakable belief in the capacity of every child, no matter how poor."  If true, then it is highly likely that Baltimore’s school system can look forward to further substantial advancement in the future.


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About the Author

Shashank Pattekar is a freelance economics and finance writer with a BSc in economics from the London School of Economics, and an MSc in mathematical trading & finance from CASS Business School in London. His favorite pastimes include scuba diving and traveling whenever possible. He is also an avid wildlife photographer.