When Eugenia Young became principal at Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School in the fall of 2019, the attendance and graduation rates for her small alternative high school on Saratoga Street were atrocious.

Excel is a place where students are sent when they’re so far behind that they are in danger of never being able to catch up and graduate. It’s a last-chance school.

When the pandemic hit, she was suddenly facing a crisis as she tried to try to keep her roughly 300 students connected to school. By 2022, her graduation rate dipped even farther, from 17% to 6.76%.

Eugenia Young is principal of the Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School, an alternative school for students who are falling behind. (Eric Thompson)

Students like those at Excel, teetering on the edge of leaving school, became one of the priorities in Baltimore City Public Schools in the past two years. While several well-regarded high schools such as Baltimore School for the Arts and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School have graduation rates above 80% and 90%, a handful of others are struggling to get half of their students to walk across the stage in four years.

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The city schools poured effort into getting those students to school every day and to graduation. Sometimes the obstacles facing students were ordinary and small. All that was needed was a visit with a parent or opening up more spots in summer school for students to make up classes. In other cases, staff and community organizations intervene — when students miss school to work, need reliable transportation, require mental health care or are overwhelmed with family issues.

The efforts are working.

While graduation rates statewide declined between 2022 and 2023, the city’s rose 2 percentage points to 71%. The rate is still far below the state average of 86%, but it’s nearly back to its record-high 72% in 2018.

Perhaps more impressive is a steep drop in the number of city students who are chronically absent, defined as missing 20 days of school or more. While the numbers are still preliminary, city schools CEO Sonja Santelises said the city’s rate is down 7.3 percentage points to about 44.8% in May of this school year compared to May of 2023.

That drop outpaces state and national trends. Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, said researchers tracking rates of chronic absence across the nation are finding decreases of about 2 to 3 percentage points each year since a dramatic spike after the pandemic.

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“My experience is that you don’t get that decrease without real intentionality, a thoughtful process,” Chang said. The city’s progress in subsequent years will be slower, she believes.

At Excel Academy, Young has a food pantry, along with day care for the infants and toddlers who are children of students. Those students can also get rides to school, a gift for those who otherwise may have to travel an hour one way on an MTA bus with a child in tow to get to school.

One of the main child care areas of the family center at The Excel Academy, where efforts to boost attendance include child care services. (Eric Thompson)

And there are lots of incentives funded through community partners — from the occasional pop-up breakfast giveaway at the school’s front door to those who arrive by the first bell, to raffles for a TV or gift card. The school won an award in the third quarter from Mayor Brandon Scott for improving its attendance rate. It also has significantly reduced the number of students who are chronically absent this year, and has seen an increase in its graduation rate, which moved up to 10% in 2023.

The improvement in attendance is “a testament to what happens when you have everyone focusing deeply on the same challenge or question,” Santelises said. She said the work included hiring two more people in the central office to track statistics on student attendance and then zero in on the schools and students who had issues with the right interventions.

New state funding allowed the district to hire coordinators at community schools, hubs for families that need support. Santelises said they have paid for their salaries 10 times over.

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The school system also worked with community organizations who did whatever was needed to get students back in school. “So if a young person needs a job. How do you get them a job?” she said. It might also mean helping a student with mental health issues find treatment, or giving a student whose family is falling apart a person they can call at 10 p.m. to problem solve.

A reengagement center located at the central office helps students who have been absent for months get back into school.

A staff member wears an “Attendance Matters” shirt at the Excel Academy at Francis M. Wood High School. (Eric Thompson)

The city schools are now monitoring the progress of all city high school students, particularly in ninth grade, a critical year that often determines whether a student will graduate. Some schools like Dunbar High School have hired a staff member whose focus is only on keeping ninth graders on track to graduate.

Dunbar Principal Yetunde Reeves created a color-coded system for report cards with green, yellow or red symbols.

When it is red, a parent knows their child is failing a class. Reeves said the system has been so successful that parents will brag on social media when their child has a green report card. The school also reminds students and families what courses are needed to graduate and what advanced classes they should take to get into colleges.

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While her graduation rate may not have improved, Reeves said she believes her students are more academically proficient than they were when she became principal about five years ago. Her students are getting into more prestigious colleges, including Harvard.

Charles Branch, 18, just graduated from Dunbar after a hard road through high school. Raised by his grandmother because his parents weren’t always present, he said, he had anger management problems as an elementary and middle schooler. He remembers vividly losing his temper and walking out of class when a seventh-grade teacher moved through the material too quickly and wouldn’t help him. “I left out of the classroom. He came out of the classroom and I got mad and I was all over the place,” he said, and his grandmother was called to the school. “My grandmother is the only one who can calm me down.”

That taught him to slow down, he said. In high school, his grades fluctuated. He lost two of his best friends to gun violence, and then some older members of his family, which was difficult on him. He credits two or three Dunbar teachers who gave him extra help academically, as well as Reeves who he said helped him stay motivated, with helping him get through high school.

After the summer of his junior year, he doubled down on his academic work. “I didn’t want be in the environment that I am living in. … I want to do something with my life.”

He said he graduated with a B average and will attend the University of Maryland Eastern Shore. “I want to do something to make my family proud,” he said.

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“When I get away from Baltimore City I will be fine. The generation I am growing up in is weird,” he added. “People dying. People shooting. It be a lot.”

Chief academic officer Joan Dabrowski said more students are graduating because they have more chances to catch up. Students are offered an opportunity to make up a class they failed at night, during the summer and on Saturdays. The city significantly increased the number of seats in summer school and recently set up four centers where students can go for six or seven Saturdays in a row to make up a class.

“We expanded the number of seats, and we prioritized the students who were just on the cusp” of graduating, Dabrowski said.

While Young’s four-year graduation rate is still awful, it has doubled to 12%. About 18% graduate in five years.

“The kids I have here at Excel, they are the kids that had been thrown away. They have not had success in their academic journey,” Young said.

But some of them have challenges that the average students don’t. They are the breadwinners in their homes or they are trying to juggle care of younger siblings for parents who work long hours.

“So when we are recognized for the work we do here, it means the world,” Young said.