Baltimore's school system has been in transition over the past five years, and the next five will see more "stops, starts and uncertainties," with a newfound focus on the classroom, schools CEO Andrés Alonso told principals Tuesday.
Against the backdrop of charts and graphs, Alonso led the system's leaders through the achievements they've produced since he arrived in 2007: test scores and graduation rates up, suspensions and dropouts down, and new professional contracts hailed as the most progressive in the country.
But it was the unscripted part of the annual "State of the Schools" presentation — where city and district leaders gathered to welcome back educators and lay out the year's agenda — that highlighted a hitch in the district's reforms.
"The change in the district has meant an extraordinary redefinition of what it means to be a principal in Baltimore City," Alonso told more than 200 administrators gathered at Morgan State University. "It's been hard."
In what is usually an encouraging kick-off to the school year, the system's leaders took turns addressing the challenges that principals have faced — namely, pressure to increase test scores — and the unprecedented principal turnover that has marked Alonso's tenure.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the system's principals union, implored principals to speak up if they did not receive the support needed to help their schools succeed.
"Our test scores go up, our principals are asked why — they're chastised and punished," he said. "Our test scores go down, our principals are asked why, and chastised and punished. There's a disconnection, a lack of communication."
Alonso took the opportunity to re-emphasize his expectations.
"I am not hiring people to succeed when I make them succeed," he said. "I am hiring people to succeed … no matter what the challenges. The accountability is not going away. We are redefining the impossible. That's the work, and as long as I'm superintendent in Baltimore city, that's the way it's going to be."
As the system braces for more rigor meant to raise the bar in the classroom — and reclaim the momentum it had as student achievement soared before stalling in 2009 — educators said they hoped they were at a crossroads together.
"Please remember that we are on the same team," Bradley Nornhold, the city's 2012 Teacher of the Year, told principals. "I hope that when you feel that when we succeed, it is your success too. I hope that when we fail, you see it as your failure too. We need your support."
Alonso highlighted a few areas targeted for improvement this year: the amount of time students spend in school, the spaces they learn in, and the quality of instruction they receive.
The district still struggles with chronic absences, he said, adding that principals should not view attendance as beyond their control.
Suspensions rose for the second year in a row, by about 300 this year, he said, reversing the district's trend of using the disciplinary measure as a last resort. Alonso said he might recommend a moratorium on suspensions that aren't violent offenses.
And he said the system's campaign for new school facilities — which will require some schools to close — will be a priority this year.
Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake emphasized that she had proposed a bottle tax to fund school construction. It met fierce opposition from the beverage industry but ultimately was passed by the City Council.
"It pained me to be in the debate about school construction," she said. "The thought that some kids have to drag their little desks down the hall when it rains … what was there to debate?"Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun