Top administrators in the Baltimore City school system were used to staff meetings with fluid agendas that left time for all to speak.

But now, Andrés Alonso was presiding. And class was in session.

When I send you an e-mail, the schools' new chief executive told them on that summer day in 2007, I expect a reply within 20 minutes. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week.

This wasn't a conversation, but more like a lecture, one in which students keep quiet for fear of being admonished for falling behind on their homework. This was the way it was going to be.

Before Alonso agreed to leave New York City, where he was deputy schools chancellor, he insisted that the Baltimore school board give him the power to run the system as he sees fit. He arrived with a mission to bring a culture of high achievement to a system where historically only about half the students have graduated.

To succeed in a job that had defeated so many others, Alonso knew he would have to create some discomfort among the people working for him. Making decisions in the best interests of children, as he pledged, would require adults to operate differently. In short order, he began cutting staff at the mammoth North Avenue headquarters to send more people and money to the schools.

"It takes extreme leaps to get a system like this to take small steps," Alonso said. "My work here has been all about extreme leaps."

He made clear to senior staff that, to keep their jobs, they would have to work harder and faster. He would tolerate no excuses, no passing the blame for failure. He didn't want to hear grumbling that he was asking them to take on too much responsibility, to do things no one demanded from them before.

He didn't really mean that they couldn't go to church or a movie without checking their BlackBerrys, but he didn't mind planting the thought.

"Part of his style is to take very extreme stances to move us just a little bit," said Laura Weeldreyer, who was the head of charter schools and later promoted to be Alonso's deputy chief of staff. "You want me to be available 24 hours a day? Really? No, 14 hours a day, but doesn't that sound reasonable?"

Weeldreyer thought it did. "Parents and kids don't think we're going too fast," she said. "None of them are like, 'Whoa, I'm really worried about those bureaucrats at central office. I really think they're working too hard.'"

Looking for answers
Navigating the maze he inherited, Alonso found one thing after another that defied common sense. For example, why was the system spending more to eradicate lead from school drinking fountains than it would cost to bring in bottled water?

That was easy to fix. Other problems were more deeply entrenched.

Each year, thousands of students were suspended for talking back, truancy and other nonviolent offenses, essentially giving them a vacation without meaningful consequences. At the same time, schools weren't removing violent students for fear of receiving the embarrassing label of "persistently dangerous" from the state.

In the nine years before Alonso arrived in Baltimore, the system lost 25,000 students and gained more than 1,000 employees. So why was he hearing so many complaints about excessive class size? What was everyone doing?

At times, Alonso felt, the only way to get answers was to find them himself. "I just have to grab the bull by the horn sometimes," he said. "I can't afford for someone else to play matador."

He started showing up at schools, often unannounced, at all hours. His first summer, he'd start his days checking out the exteriors of school buildings before dawn. He often spent the evening attending a PTA meeting. Within a year, he made it to more than 150 of the system's 192 schools.

One day last spring, he dropped in unannounced at an elementary/middle school where teachers were quitting midyear.

He strolled into the office and signed the visitor log. A nervous assistant principal showed him to a room where, on a chalkboard, nine students' names were written along with "defiance," "disrespect," "insubordination" and "violation of school rules." The principal left a meeting with the parent of a child returning from suspension to join them.