A Turnaround for Baltimore Schools

A modest enrollment gain this fall could signal a big shift for the school district.

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Enrollment in the Baltimore City Public Schools system has increased for the first time in nearly 40 years at a point when many urban school districts are struggling to compete with the allure of private and suburban schools.

Andres Alonso, the school system's chief executive officer, says Baltimore City has about 82,000 students enrolled this year, 750 students more than last year. Though Alonso will not know the exact number until his estimates are certified by the state a few weeks from now, he says he is certain of an increase, however big or small. He attributes reversing the regular, steady enrollment declines of 2,500 to 3,000 students a year to the growing variety of school choice options available to parents.

Since he arrived in 2007, Alonso has used community outreach as a tool to improve the Baltimore City schools and increase enrollment. He says he has personally attended more than 100 PTA and PTO meetings to seek feedback about the schools from the community. When parents told Alonso they supported independently operated public charter schools, he responded by opening 25 such campuses. When parents indicated they were unhappy with the city's middle and high school options, Alonso opened six new schools.

"We understand that the traditional school setting does not work for many students, which is why this celebratory mood signals so much," Alonso says. "Parents are voting with their feet and showing us they support the changes we've made with their children in mind."

Alonso publicly expressed his excitement about the city's increased public school enrollment by throwing a party at M&T Bank Stadium earlier this fall in celebration of the achievement. The nature of the enrollment declines in Baltimore had been so huge and so consistent that Alonso considers what's happening now a "monumental" success.

"With parents feeling more ownership of the city's schools, they will be more invested in what we have to offer," Alonso says. "That said, I know it's on us to provide attractive options that offer advantages for their children."

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