"This is an amazing city, but it is a city that can be tough on children and on educators," Alonso said. "We have taken great steps toward transforming our schools so that they can be better. But the enormously difficult work that remains can sometimes seem overwhelming. Don't let the momentary doubt carry you."
The schools chief led educators through a 11/2-hour presentation about past gains, present goals and the work ahead. Enrollment numbers are expected to grow for the fourth consecutive year — by more than 900 students this year — after four years of plunging in the past decade.
Data from the 2010-2011 school year, released by the schools chief Tuesday, showed a very slight uptick in attendance rates for city students, but high school figures remain what he called "unacceptably low" at 82.3 percent this year. Dropout and graduation data will be released by the state education department in the fall, but Alonso said the school system granted 176 more diplomas this year.
The number of students who were habitually truant this year decreased by 500 from 2010, but Alonso said the 5,600 children who missed 20 percent or more school days last year present obstacles for the city's progress.
About 1,300 more students were suspended last school year than in 2009-2010. The system noted an increase of physical attacks on students, with 385 more incidents than last year. There were also 200 more physical attacks on adults.
Alonso said he was concerned that "soft offenses" — suspensions for incidents of disrespect, insubordination and inciting a disturbance — were also among the increased incidents.
"When I see increases in those soft offenses that are not directly tied to violence, I start to get nervous," he said. In 2003, the city suspended more than 26,000 students, a trend Alonso has reversed by discouraging suspensions and promoting interventions. He said the data could indicate that educators are resorting to suspensions as a means to maintain order.
Alonso said that this year, the focus will be in the classroom, as the system braces for critical curriculum reforms and new union contracts that will increase accountability for the system's educators.
The city's 2007 teacher of the year also offered encouraging remarks. "I view challenges as an opportunity to grow," said Andrea Jackson, a teacher at Northwood Elementary. "We have a profession where each year you have another chance to get it right."
The city noted declines on the 2011 Maryland School Assessments and the national Stanford 10 tests this past year. Scores for the city's third-through-eighth-graders fell in both reading and math on the MSAs while the city's first- and second-graders saw slides in the percentile rankings of the Stanford 10.
Alonso stressed the importance of progress over time, but also said it was "common sense" that the system would take a dip in a year that he put monitors in every school to discourage cheating on state tests. Three schools were confirmed to have cheated on state assessments in previous years.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the administrators union, also addressed the school leaders.
He explained his decision to wear the same salmon-colored suit he did four years ago when the schools chief arrived as a way to illustrate his commitment to working with Alonso to support principals.
"A man who wears a pink suit is very secure in himself," Gittings said to the chuckling crowd.
Then in an unusual showing by the union president, who has been one of Alonso's most outspoken critics, Gittings apologized to him for not initially supporting the hiring of 15 new executive directors responsible for coaching and evaluating principals this year.
"A man who wears pink also has the ability to admit when he's wrong about something," Gittings said, adding that the hires were "necessary" to provide support that school leaders will need this year. He said that despite the pressures of the job, principals remain the backbone of the system.