He asked them for the same thing he'd requested from Wilma Findley more than 20 years earlier, something so important that he was willing to take less money in exchange. When they committed to give him the authority he sought, in a city within driving distance of his family, the question in his mind changed from "Why Baltimore?" to "How could it not be Baltimore?"

'Secret to my character'
The kids come as is.

Alonso often thinks of that sign in the office at Samuel L. Berliner. He remembers seeing the special education students at Jefferson Junior High cordoned off on their own floor with caged stairwells. He thinks of the kids who are said to be unreachable, unteachable, who have severe behavior problems or unstable home lives, but are reachable - if you know how to reach them.

Kids like Joel.

He thinks of the kids who have the potential to do anything, if only someone could see beyond their poverty and language barrier.

Kids like him.

The controversy in Canton touched all his hot buttons. On the night he met with parents at the Baltimore Education Network, he shared with the audience a lesson learned from his father.

"This is me not as the CEO, but me as Andrés Alonso, my father's child," he said. "My father once taught me, and it's the secret to my character, you never leave a room where you're in the right with the other person feeling better than you are about something. Never." Whenever he gets combative, it's in defense of what he perceives as righteous action. In Canton, he believed he was right, and he needed parents to help prove he was right by standing up for their kids.

From the time Alonso arrived in Baltimore, he talked about his desire to open a school inside the central office, to breathe life back into the place and remind administrators why they are there. Amid the Canton debate, he had an idea: make that central office school serve the kinds of kids he used to teach.

Alonso decided on an alternative school for students on long-term suspension and expulsion. He wanted to make a statement. The neighbors might complain about such a school opening in their neighborhood, but his employees wouldn't dare.

"They don't belong in cages," he told the group at the Baltimore Education Network. "The schools are not zoos. The kids can be taught. And we are going to work with them no matter what."

From Cuba to Baltimore

Andrés Antonio Alonso

•Born: June 14, 1957, in Jovellanos, Cuba

•Personal: Single; one adopted son, Joel, 33

Residence: Fells Point

Education: Bachelor of Arts in history and English, Columbia University, 1979; Juris Doctor, Harvard Law School, 1982; Master of Education, Harvard, 1999; Doctor of Education, Harvard, 2006

Experience: corporate lawyer at Hughes, Hubbard & Reed in New York City, 1982 to 1984; special education and English as a Second Language teacher in Newark, N.J., 1986 to 1998; superintendent's intern in Springfield, Mass., 1999 to 2000; chief of staff for teaching and learning at New York City Department of Education, 2003 to 2006; deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in New York, 2006 to 2007; CEO of Baltimore schools since July 2007

Screensaver: Montage of family photos

What's on his iPod: About 2,000 songs, many of them Cuban