On top of that, he added yet another challenge. Between last January and September, 925 city students dropped out of high school. Alonso's order to principals: Get them back. After a flurry of phone calls, home visits and re-enrollment fairs, more than 200 returned. That left principals to figure out what to do with students who in some cases are much older than their peers and tough to control.
"On this I will take no prisoners," he said. "So they're difficult. As opposed to what?"
Encountering resistanceHistorically, the Baltimore school system offered employment opportunities to African-Americans blocked by racism from jobs in private industry.
Over time, however, that led to a system in which patronage and loyalty sometimes helped determine promotions and in which people became wary of outsiders, particularly those who weren't black. When Alonso arrived, his office was decorated in peachy pink and light green: the sorority colors of Alice Pinderhughes, the system's first African-American female superintendent, who had been gone for 20 years.
One of Pinderhughes' proteges was Charlene Cooper Boston, the acting CEO whom the school board passed over for the permanent job in favor of Alonso. To Jimmy Gittings, longtime president of the administrators union and son of Baltimore's first black assistant superintendent, it was a "cold slap in the face" to a woman who had dedicated her career to the city schools.
Gittings soon became a leading critic of the additional responsibilities that Alonso put on principals, many of whom he says won't speak up for fear of being fired. He and Alonso had several heated exchanges in public, with Gittings accusing Alonso of setting principals up for failure.
In August, Alonso converted an annual back-to-school seminar for administrators from a largely ceremonial event into a work day. There was no room for Gittings' customary welcome speech. He perceived it as a snub.
"The reason morale is low is because of the way in which individuals are talked to; there's not a friendly relationship," he said. The system used to treat its employees like family, he said, and "it is no longer that way. Maybe it shouldn't be, but in the 37 years that I've been in this system, every time you bring a CEO in from outside of the system, that CEO's job is to cut heads off and get rid of people."
Gittings wasn't the only union leader to clash with Alonso. The CEO insisted in his first contract negotiations that principals be able to require teachers to spend 45 minutes a week together planning lessons or reviewing student performance. Three months into his tenure, the teachers union called for his ouster. The union didn't oppose the idea of collaboration but was angry that teachers were being asked to do more work for the same pay. Alonso largely prevailed in arbitration, and for the most part, he and the union leaders have gotten along ever since.
Alonso has gone out of his way to get to know politicians in the city, taking the advice of the superintendent who mentored him while he was studying for his doctorate at Harvard. But part of his understanding when he took the job was that he'd report to the school board, and no one else.
That led to an incident one morning last winter in which Mayor Sheila Dixon denounced Alonso's decision to pay students struggling to pass the state graduation exams if they attended extra tutoring and improved their performance. She had read about it in the newspaper.
Dixon spoke with Alonso later that day and by the afternoon came out in support of his action. She said she hadn't realized the pay was just one component of a plan to help struggling students. She said she told Alonso that "he needs to keep me briefed," and from then on, he has. Along with Gov. Martin O'Malley, Dixon does, after all, appoint the nine-member school board.
"The reason most urban superintendents don't last a particularly long time is because of the politics," said Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia schools chancellor, whom Alonso consulted before taking the job in Baltimore. "What is going to determine Andrés' longevity in the job is the extent to which the board and the business and philanthropy community continue to support him so he's freed up to do the work he's doing."
Alonso enjoys the support of state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who had a hostile relationship with his predecessor, Bonnie Copeland, and tried to take over 11 failing schools. "In the years I've worked here, he's really the first person who's willing to say, 'What we've been doing is unacceptable,'" Grasmick said. "There's been a lot of rationalizing in the past, and I don't think he's into rationalizing."
Alonso says the hardest part of his job has been learning to work with a school board, something he didn't have to do in New York. Board Chairman Brian Morris pushed for Alonso's hiring and helps deliver the votes he needs to get initiatives passed. But Morris will have to leave this summer because of term limits, and Alonso's test after that will be to maintain the backing of at least five other board members.
During Alonso's first interview with the board, Morris said, he showed that "he can walk into a room with people that don't know him and don't know where he stands and within the first few minutes disarm many of their doubts and present himself as a credible, compassionate educator who is ... one of the smartest people in the room without flaunting it in your face."
He said that's what Alonso needs to keep doing.
"If you have the right people around the table who recognize that their service on the board is not about them but about the children," Morris said, "then I think he'll do fine."