The day Andrés Alonso dreaded came the Friday before Thanksgiving.

For his first year and a half as Baltimore schools chief, the system was showing unprecedented progress. Four decades of enrollment decline ended. Test scores were their best since the state started keeping track. The graduation rate? Up. Suspensions? Down.

Alonso's excitement grew with each new piece of good news, and yet he was anxious. "It can turn on a dime," he would say.

And then, there was a murder.

Markel Williams, 15, was stabbed to death by a fellow student outside William H. Lemmel Middle School. It was the first killing on city school grounds during school hours since 2001. "Parents do not send their kids to school in the morning thinking they're not coming back at night," Alonso said. "It's a violation of the covenant."

All weekend, he waited for e-mails from an angry public, calls from activists demanding change, cries from parents who didn't feel safe sending their kids to school anymore. They never came.

A poor black boy with disciplinary problems had been slain at a failing school. It was almost as though it was to be expected. "It's unbelievable," Alonso said of the lack of outrage. "It's unbelievable."

"The kids come as is," read the saying that Alonso saw in the office on his first day of teaching in Newark, N.J. It has guided his outlook as an educator ever since. To truly transform the city schools, he says, the community must believe in the possibility of transformation with the kids it has, as they are. Therein lies what is perhaps Alonso's biggest challenge: overcoming the community's acceptance that things are as they always will be.

Most of the people who held Alonso's job before him were defeated by bureaucracy and politics. He has found ways to control those things. Single-handedly, he has reshaped the organization of the school system, empowering principals and revolutionizing the way education in the city is funded.

But on his own, he can't take the streets out of the schools. On his own, he can't stop the violence. He must have troops, starting with parents and extending to the community at large.

"I have no illusions about this being easy," Alonso said hours after Markel Williams' death. "We have been on an unbelievable ride. I always knew it would end and that the job was to turn it around again."

'He answered!'
The students at City Neighbors Charter School were sick of the frozen, prepackaged food that came to their cafeteria and other schools too small for a full kitchen. "Gross," they called it.

For months, they tried unsuccessfully to appeal to the school system's food service director. Not getting anywhere, they e-mailed Alonso. He didn't just respond to their messages; he agreed to a meeting. Then, to their astonishment, he removed the food service director from her job. In her place, he hired a chef who brings in locally grown produce and asks the kids what they want to eat.

"Dr. Alonso reacted pretty good," said Ethan Maszczenski, 13.

"He fired her! Got her out!" added classmate Alice Sheehan, 12. "We had to e-mail Dr. Alonso four times or something, but, well, he's busy. He's the superintendent of Baltimore City. But he answered!"

It's a long way from improving bad food to tackling school violence, but Alonso sees a connection. If he takes seriously intensely localized but deeply irksome matters, his strategy goes, he'll earn the credibility to ask for help in dealing with systemic problems he can't address alone. "It's about creating the sense that the school system can improve," he said.

In fall 2007, the advocacy group Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development angrily presented Alonso with a list of building deficiencies in the dozen schools where it runs after-school programs.

Heat wasn't working at eight of them. Westport Academy had fist-size holes in a hallway wall where drywall was crumbling. In the office, people tripped over a bump in the floor. In a classroom, the floor was caving in. Nina Teresi, a fifth-grade reading teacher, said she didn't expect to see any improvement. "You kind of get used to it," she said.

Alonso put his staff to work and spent $2.6 million on repairs to the schools.