Published: August 11, 2004
The New York Times
To Stem Dropouts, Urban Districts Switch
By John Gehring
An increasing number of urban districts are scrapping traditional high school grade structures,
changing their retention policies, and devising more flexible routes toward graduation to address
high dropout rates.
Educators in Baltimore, Boston, Houston, and Rochester, N.Y., say they are particularly focused
on the 9th grade, a year when many students drop out or fall behind by failing to accumulate the
credits necessary for promotion.
The energy around rethinking and reshaping high school policies is being driven by a bevy of
studies, and ample firsthand experience, showing that traditional ways of doing business are
failing. A report released this past spring by the National High School Alliance, a Washington-
based network of organizations that work to improve high school achievement, found that the
graduation rate for urban districts hovers around 50 percent.
In Boston, Superintendent Thomas W. Payzant has proposed overhauling the 9th through 12th
grades in the 60,000-student district, which has a growing pool of "overage" freshmen, who
often drop out.
Currently, high school freshmen are required to repeat the entire year if they fail English or
mathematics, even if they have passed other courses. Last year, Boston had about 400 overage
freshmen, out of 5,700 9th graders.
Mr. Payzant wants to give students more time to work at their own pace. A new graduation
policy, which he proposed June 9, would end the strict retention of students who fail some
classes. The superintendent also is calling for more "pathways" through high school that would
allow students to graduate in three, four, or five years.
The Boston school committee, which supports the change, is expected to take up the proposal
In Baltimore, where almost 40 percent of 9th graders drop out, the school board voted this spring
to reduce the number of credits freshmen must have before being promoted to the next grade.
Under the new policy, students must accumulate four credits—in the core subjects of English,