It’s a crisis that President Barack Obama declared cannot be accepted or ignored—high school dropout rates. Roughly 1.2 million students renounce school every year, the White House reported, and about half of the dropouts are Black or Latino.

Obama vowed to pour $900 million worth of grants into states and school districts that undergo sweeping reforms to address the issue, and two alternative public high schools in Baltimore City plan to do just that.

The schools may not have ties to Obama’s grant initiative, but this fall, Reginald F. Lewis and W.E.B. DuBois high schools in East Baltimore are launching a joint, accelerated program that will cater to older students that are roughly two or more years behind their peers in academic credits.

The goal is to put the “over-aged and under-credited” students on a faster and more accommodating pace toward graduation—offering flexible bell schedules, combined classes and non-traditional classrooms.

“If we do nothing, it’s a high probability that they will drop out,” said Reginald F. Lewis Principal Barney Wilson, who is working with W.E.B. DuBois Principal Delores Berry Binder on the endeavor.

The school officials have identified 170 students that qualify for the voluntary program.
Earlier this year, Wilson said, the principals were approached by school district leaders to develop an innovative plan to encourage students that are truant or falling behind academically to remain in school.

“We have to decide as a system to be educational leaders or followers and the city has decided to be leaders,” Wilson said.

High school officials traveled to New York to visit schools with like-minded programs and held focus groups with targeted students and their families to ask what would motivate them to stay in school and earn their diploma.

The students “overwhelmingly” said they would attend the accelerated program, Wilson said, if classes were held in a non-traditional setting and were more engaging.

“In their hearts, they do want to graduate and they do want to succeed,” he said. “And they have ideas; it’s just that no one every asked them.”

Wilson adds that school officials are serious about considering student input for many aspects of the new program including its future name, mascot and colors.

Accelerated students will take classes in a separate wing of the W.E.B. DuBois and Reginald F. Lewis’s shared school building. Construction for that division is scheduled for this summer.

Instead of a two semester structure with four or six classes at a time, as is customary, accelerated students could have trimester or even five semester grading periods and enroll in seven or eight classes at a time.

Classes would also be interdisciplinary; courses such as world literature and history would be combined—not only allowing students to earn more credits, but gain a deeper understanding of the content, officials say.

The classroom structure would also be nontraditional—chair rows would be eliminated, students would work in groups more frequently and portfolios and projects would be considered as varying means of measuring student progress.

Participating students would choose whether to begin their school day in the morning or afternoon, giving them the opportunity to have a set work schedule.

Wilson said it will take “out-of-the-box thinking” to successfully tackle the dropout rate.

“We keep using models that we observed and imitated in our own upbringing without taking the time to reinvent and modernize education,” he said. “If what we had in place worked, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

Researchers say varying factors impede teenagers from earning their diploma including the need to work to support their families, fear of walking through troubled neighborhoods to get to school, embarrassment about learning disabilities or behavioral problems, and some might even have criminal records and restrictions on when they can leave their home.

Cameroon E. Miles, founder and director of Mentoring Male Teens in the Hood, who’s worked with young adults at Reginald F. Lewis High School, said that’s why schools can’t approach school with the “one-size-fits-all” mentality.

“Anything the schools can do to help young people get through and get their diploma to move on is a positive thing,” Miles said.

He’s pleased, he added, that Reginald F. Lewis and W.E.B. DuBois leaders are working closely with teens to formulate the accelerated program.

“Too many times we create a program for young people and we haven’t asked them what they want, especially in the juvenile justice system,” he said.

The program is still in the development stages as school officials plan for the fall and search for a program director.

A spokeswoman for the Baltimore City Public School System confirmed the program, and said district leaders will be “putting the finishing touches on it” within the next few weeks.