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Alonso comes 'as is'

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He'd been controlling his temper all day, plotting how to say what was on his mind. His chance came at 6:45 that evening.

Andrés Alonso, Baltimore schools chief executive officer, arrived in Mount Vernon to meet with a few dozen of the city's most active school parents and wasted no time getting to what was eating at him.

"How many of you called City Council today?" his Cuban-accented voice thundered through the conference room. There was silence. "Raise your hand if you did!" Nothing.

Many in the room had no clue what Alonso was talking about, but he thought they should. He carried a newspaper article describing an uproar in Canton over his plan to let a new school open in a building previously slated to close. The neighborhood was gentrified and predominantly white; the students would be mostly black, as were those at the old school, which had a history of disciplinary problems.

The area's city councilman was threatening to hold up the school system's budget if Alonso didn't back down.

"Nobody!" he cried. "Nobody called a councilman! The CEO of this school system can not" - he slammed his hand on the table - "be the only person in the school system that on a global level is saying the kids are worth it."

He railed on, and kept coming back to the same point. "My expectation is that we are not a dormant community, or a doormat community ... There should be absolutely" - he pounded his hand again - "no expectation that I make any" - and again - "decision other than for the good of the kids. That [pound] should [pound] be [pound] the [pound] demand [pound] of [pound] the [pound] city. And I have yet to make a single decision other than for the good of the kids, and I am only going to be able to get away with that purity of action if I have troops."

The monologue went on for 23 minutes. The audience at the Baltimore Education Network meeting was stunned, just as intended. It was classic Alonso: impolitic and arrogant, passionate and iconoclastic.

In July 2007, the immigrant with four Ivy League degrees charged into Baltimore to bring a culture of high achievement to a school system where historically only about half the students have graduated. It is an enormous task, one at which many have failed, not only here but in cities across America.

But Alonso, a 51-year-old bachelor, believes fervently that the poor, minority children born into America's underclass don't have to be stuck there. His urgency and intensity, often fueled by little more than diet Lipton green tea, have inspired some employees and alienated others. During his first weeks in the city, he had his driver take him around to schools at 5 a.m. to check out the physical grounds. He sends e-mails in the middle of the night, expecting rapid answers once staff arrive at work. He analyzes data for hours on end, plugged into his iPod filled with 2,000 songs, many from his homeland, to shut out the world.

The Baltimore school board has given him power unprecedented in recent history to run the system as he sees fit, a condition he insisted upon before agreeing to leave New York City, where he was deputy schools chancellor. He has pledged to stay for 10 years but also says he ought to be fired if he can't get the graduation rate up. And he says that if at any point he's prevented from making decisions that he believes are in kids' best interests, he's gone. Last month, he waged a public battle with Gov. Martin O'Malley over proposed cuts in school funding, even though O'Malley is one of two people to appoint the school board. Alonso accused the governor of retreating from a commitment to public education and hurting the neediest school districts to the benefit of wealthier ones. The governor said that was "patently false."

Just as Alonso asks to be held accountable in exchange for autonomy, he is taking an extraordinary gamble on the ability of principals, teachers, parents and students to produce excellence when given the tools for self-reliance. Early results are promising: Test scores are up, the graduation rate is up, and enrollment is up for the first time in 40 years.

Yet in a city where the violence of the streets can instantaneously spill over into the schools, progress is tenuous. In the schools that are still failing, students feel trapped and staff feel disillusioned and overwhelmed by Alonso's demands.

Education, Alonso likes to say, is all about possibilities. Too often, it's about possibilities denied.

In his own life, it was about possibilities realized.

Finding a careerLate in 1986, a 29-year old man with thick dark hair, glasses and a small gap between his two front teeth walked into a school for emotionally disturbed adolescents in the projects of Newark, N.J.

He was a new teacher sent by the central office to work with students learning English as a second language. Principal Wilma Findley wasn't expecting him. She didn't know what to do with him - or what to make of him. A Harvard-educated lawyer, she thought, and he wants to be here?

So Andrés Antonio Alonso spent his first day at Samuel L. Berliner School sitting in the office. All day. With nothing else to do, he watched the comings and goings of students who were tardy or in trouble. He contemplated a sign hanging on the wall, below the mounted head of a moose:

The kids come as is.

The message resonated with Alonso, then and for years to come. The kids would come with problems. An educator's job is to get past the problems.

He had given up a lot to be there, given up what many would call the American dream.

At 12 years old, he spoke no English and had to repeat the seventh grade. Six years later, he was attending Columbia University on a full scholarship.

He knew during his first year at Harvard Law School that a legal career wouldn't make him happy. "Second semester, he came home and told my mom, 'I really don't like this,'" said his sister, Olga Alonso-Cardenas. "My mom said, 'How could you say no to a scholarship at Harvard? It's one of the greatest educations you can have. ... He said, 'I'll finish for you.'"

After graduation, he was hired by a top Manhattan law firm. Still, his heart was elsewhere. David Cantor, a friend who was then a paralegal, remembers finding Alonso reading War and Peace at his desk in the middle of a workday.

After two years, Alonso gave up on law. The decision was hard for his parents to accept.

"What I explained was, I was not turning my back on the American dream," he said. "I was exercising the American dream."

For the next year and a half, he lived off his savings, traveling, trying to write the great Cuban-American novel and searching for his place in the world.

Teaching didn't seem like work for his sister. Wondering why, he dropped by her third-grade classroom in Newark.

"I saw kids who were" - he paused during a recent interview to find the right word - "happy," he said, "in an environment that she made fun. ... There was energy, there was engagement, there was caring. You walked into her classroom, and it was almost like a different universe. It just struck me that it was something I needed to consider."

After a summer of international travel, he took a job at a chaotic high school on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The first week, he was transferred out of his assignment as a literature teacher for English learners, and he learned that budget cuts might be coming, in which case he'd be the first let go. He then got a call from an associate of his sister's in Newark about teaching emotionally disturbed students.

"All of a sudden, he became the obsessive teacher," said Alejandro "Alex" Valella, his best friend since high school. Conversations that had centered on books, movies and sports became about his students.

In the boys at Berliner, struggling to learn English, Alonso saw a little bit of himself.

Building a new lifeHe was born in Jovellanos, Cuba, a year and a half before Fidel Castro came to power. He showed unusual intelligence early on, learning to read by age 3. His parents, Braulio and Olga, prodded the local elementary school to let him skip kindergarten and first and second grades. He arrived in third grade barely 6 years old. The situation was so socially awkward that, after a day, he was demoted to second grade.

The Alonso family declared its intention to leave Cuba after the failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion. The process took eight years. Braulio Alonso, who once ran a business school training adults in accounting and auditing, was sent for two of those years to a labor camp to work in the sugar fields alongside other able-bodied men who wanted to leave. At 11, Andrés, too, was sent with his classmates to work the land: sacking potatoes, weeding tomatoes, picking beans. For more than a month, he lived in a tent, away from his mother and three younger siblings.

Then one morning in November 1969, government representatives knocked on the door to tell Olga Alonso that she and her family were to be at the airport by 5 p.m. Chaos ensued as friends helped her round up the kids from their schools and her husband from the labor camp and pack what they could.

After arriving in Miami in time to celebrate their first Thanksgiving, they continued on to Union City, N.J., a hub of the embroidery industry that had become the Cuban enclave of the Northeast.

At Jefferson Junior High, Alonso learned he was being sent back from eighth grade to seventh because he didn't speak English and was too young. Most of his classes were with other new arrivals. They mixed with the New Jersey natives and earlier immigrants for gym, where Valella, one of those earlier arrivals, translated for him on his first day.

His parents went to work in the factories, but his father soon got an offer from a Cuban friend to be an auditor for Merrill Lynch. It meant a pay cut, but Braulio thought it would lead to more opportunities. The sacrifice made a lasting impression on his son.

Andrés learned to speak English quickly. By 14, he had moved out of bilingual education. In 10th grade, he moved into advanced classes. "I would get a 94, and Andrés would have a 96," Valella said. "I would have a 96; Andrés would have a 98."

The two friends planned to apply to state colleges. The first time they took the SAT, they didn't even know what it was. But during their junior year at Union Hill High, a French teacher named Mrs. Brown encouraged them to set their sights higher.

As seniors, Alonso was voted most likely to succeed and Valella was vice president of the student government. Still, Columbia was a leap. They felt unprepared compared with classmates from prep schools. They would have to commute from home and work to support themselves; Alonso's jobs would include delivering disco clothing to retail outlets. But thanks to a teacher's high expectations, they were bound for the Ivy League.

The key to the childOn his second day as a teacher at Samuel L. Berliner, Alonso showed up before everyone else, more than an hour before the first bell. Findley, the principal, was the second to arrive, giving her no choice but to talk to him. He told her he just needed a place to meet with the students, and to be effective, he needed the authority to make his own rules. She was perplexed by the newcomer's audacity, but she conceded and let him set up shop in the library.

Alonso quickly came to admire Findley's intolerance for educators' excuses for why certain children weren't learning. There's a "key" to every child, she would say; the educator's job is to unlock it.

He also found a mentor in veteran teacher Diane Brinkley. The two would have long conversations about what they could do to make a difference in the lives of their deeply troubled students.

Once, they combed through the cumulative folders of all 120 students to see if they could pinpoint when the children had fallen irreparably behind. Did no one help them when they struggled to read in first grade? Had they transferred schools multiple times in a year?

"We just started coming up with these markers where you could see, this kid is going to be in trouble, and how the school system failed them time and time again, year after year, until they got to us with severe emotional problems, severe disabilities, for things the schools didn't address when they were much younger," Brinkley said.

Following Brinkley's lead, Alonso took his students on field trips to expose them to the world beyond the neighborhoods they typically never left. They went to New York's museums and aquarium and circus, to ice skating rinks, to a Great Adventure amusement park and once a year, to the movies. He also began to visit them at home.

"We would go into a house, and there's nothing but a mattress in there because the mother has sold everything in the house, where some young boys had to see … their mothers were basically selling their bodies in the same bedroom that the kids were [in]," Brinkley said. "For us to go in there and try to get some drug intervention for that mother, it was not something sanctioned by the district, but you do what needs to be done."

Brinkley did something else that wasn't sanctioned: She took students to live with her when they needed a place to stay.

A kid needing a fatherOn Alonso's first day teaching in the Berliner library, an 11-year-old Puerto Rican boy named Joel picked a fight in his class. Alonso gave him detention.

Afterward, teacher and student headed separate ways, only to end up at the same city bus stop. Alonso realized he didn't have the 75-cent fare and had to ask a stranger for spare change.

"This boy thought this was the most extraordinary thing he'd ever seen," Alonso recalled. "It was fun, his sense of the world."

As they rode the bus together through the streets of Newark, Joel told his teacher stories about the different neighborhoods. "This kid was so smart, so fundamentally a good kid," Alonso said, "but he was in a school for severely emotionally disturbed kids."

Joel's home life was more stable than that of many other kids at Berliner. Though his father was out of the picture, his mother was caring and involved. Until fourth grade, his academic performance was normal. Then he began to struggle with what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder, and he fell far behind.

Alonso would remain Joel's teacher for three years. The boy would not behave in other classes; in Alonso's, he did.

"He cared about me learning, not like other teachers," Joel recalled. "He pushed me, pushed me, pushed me, and I kinda liked it."

Alonso wanted to get Joel out of special ed. With permission from Joel's mother, he worked out a deal for the boy to spend most of the day at another school a block away in an accelerated program to complete seventh and eighth grades simultaneously. The following year, he and Findley got Joel a scholarship to a Catholic high school.

The work, however, proved far too hard, and Joel said he didn't fit in with the "rich kids." By the end of his freshman year, he was failing. He ran away.

During the week or so when they didn't know where he was, Joel's mother and Alonso first had the conversation: Maybe, she agreed, the boy should be with you. "It became the put-up-or-shut-up moment," Alonso said.

While Alonso had developed close relationships with many of his students, Joel was looking for something the others weren't: a father. He was also desperate to get out of a rough neighborhood where he faced intense pressure to join a gang. "Where I lived, you did what they did or you were against them," he said. One of his two childhood best friends ended up dead; the other became a fugitive.

"I didn't want to end up like that," Joel said, "and I saw someone who cared about me and wanted to help me."

For a new single dad, there had to be rules. Joel would attend the public high school in Weehawken, the town next to Union City. He would do two hours of homework every night before he could leave the house, and he would have a strict curfew. Alonso also wanted him to memorize a page of the dictionary each day. He didn't get very far.

No matter how Joel tried, he could not understand chemistry. Alonso made him take it three times. They sat at a diner for hours at a time, father helping son with homework. On graduation day, Joel retook a chemistry exam in his cap and gown, then waited anxiously to see if he'd passed and could collect his diploma. He did. Alonso made him commit to at least one semester of community college. When Joel dropped out after that semester and got a job selling vacuum cleaners, Alonso insisted that within six months, he figure out a viable vocation.

So Joel enlisted in the National Guard and was sent to Aberdeen. After eight months, he emerged with training in small motors. Later, he returned to Maryland because a friend needed a roommate - a convenient choice for Alonso, it turned out.

Now 33, Joel lives on his own in Frederick and works as a mechanic. He comes to Baltimore every few weeks to visit Alonso, and the two regularly drive together to New Jersey to visit family.

"I don't feel like an adopted kid," he said. "I really, really feel like I'm his son."

Seeking challengesFrom Berliner, Alonso moved on to another school to oversee a regional bilingual program. Over time, he became more and more disillusioned as he watched his students make progress, only to slip when they arrived in Newark's dysfunctional high schools.

After 12 years in the classroom, he decided to make a broader impact. He applied to Harvard's Urban Superintendents Program and was among the few accepted with no prior administrative experience. Being an alumnus didn't hurt, but program director Robert Peterkin said Alonso's application stood out because of "the commitment he made to teaching the most vulnerable students and the clarity of his view on how to change public education."

"His personal story was compelling," Peterkin said, "and he tied it to the possibilities for all children to learn and succeed."

At Harvard, Alonso interned for Peter Negroni, then the superintendent in Springfield, Mass. Negroni said he had nothing to teach Alonso about instruction and put him in charge of a group of schools.

"He'd go in a classroom and be able to decipher what he saw so well and then put together a plan to help improve that teacher," Negroni said. "It was just unbelievable. He's the best at it I've ever seen, and I've seen a lot of people."

But in the political arena, Negroni discovered, his intern had work to do. "He was anxious to get the instructional work done, and you can't do the instructional work without doing the political work," Negroni said.

While still working on his dissertation, Alonso was offered three jobs within the New York City Department of Education in 2003. He accepted the position of chief of staff to the deputy chancellor because it would put him in the middle of everything. After serving under two deputy chancellors, he moved into the position himself.

In Chancellor Joel Klein, he found someone who shared his conviction that anything that might help students is worth trying. Alonso said his direction from Klein was "Run, Andrés, run."

Which he did.

Alonso's secretary would try to get him to slow down long enough to eat lunch, but typically, he ran on adrenaline and waited to eat at night. He visited schools almost daily and though he had a long commute home to New Jersey, his BlackBerry was always on.

"I would start getting e-mails from him at like 4 o'clock in the morning on things that he needed right away with great accuracy and rigorous analysis, and he needed them now," recalled Brian Osborne, who was his chief of staff and is now superintendent of the South Orange/Maplewood School District in New Jersey. "There were also things he had asked me about at 9 o'clock the night before, and he wanted to know what was taking so long."

After completing his doctorate in 2006, Alonso felt ready to take on a district of his own. But it had to be a place where he'd have the power to make changes for the right reasons, not because of politics. And the bigger the challenge, the better.

In the spring of 2007, he got a call from a search firm hired to find the Baltimore schools a new CEO. He didn't submit an application but agreed to a confidential meeting with school board members at a hotel outside College Park on a weekend when he was traveling to meet Joel.

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

•Salary: $240,000, plus as much as $30,000 a year in performance-based bonuses


About the series

The reporting Education reporter Sara Neufeld spent hundreds of hours interviewing Andrés Alonso, attending public meetings where he was present, and accompanying him on visits to schools and events after he was named CEO of the Baltimore schools in June 2007. She observed most of the scenes in this series that take place in Baltimore; others were reconstructed based on interviews with him and his relatives, friends, and current and former colleagues.

Alonso's adopted son, Joel, was interviewed for this story on the condition that his last name not be used because of his disabilities and challenging life circumstances.

What's next •Tomorrow: A new schools chief shakes up the bureaucracy with flair, making both believers and enemies.

•Tuesday: Andrés Alonso mobilizes help for the challenges he can't take on alone.

What's online•Alonso narrates his life in pictures

•Alonso describes his philosophy at press conference announcing his appointment

•A photo gallery

At baltimoresun.com/alonso

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