The strategy has limits. Baltimore's school buildings have hundreds of millions of dollars of maintenance needs. If parents at every school asked for repairs, there wouldn't be enough money to go around. Still, Alonso reaches out.

During his first year on the job, he attended more than 120 PTA meetings and other parent gatherings. Getting parents involved is a challenge in cities beset by poverty. In addition to the social problems such as drug addiction and incarceration, many parents had negative experiences in school themselves and don't know how to navigate the bureaucracy on behalf of their children.

Alonso had to start mobilizing from scratch in some places. At one high school PTA meeting last spring, two parents showed up - along with a rat that scurried across the room.

When people did turn out and tell Alonso what they wanted, he was determined to deliver. Over and over, he heard from parents of older elementary students who were desperate for some decent options for middle school. He devised a plan to open two dozen combined middle/high schools ("transformation schools," he dubbed them) over four years, some preparing kids for college, others for the work force.

Few schools in the country place middle and high school students under one roof, and little research exists to support the concept. Alonso didn't care.

Within a few months, he had secured $4.4 million in philanthropic donations, solicited applications from outside groups to run the new schools, and gotten school board approval to open the first six in August 2008. The board has since approved applications for six more to open this year.

Levonne St. Claire read about one of the new choices, the Baltimore Civitas School, in a newsletter put out by the Johns Hopkins University, which is helping to operate the middle/high school. After speaking with the principal, she moved from Woodlawn to West Baltimore to send her daughter to Civitas instead of one of Baltimore County's lowest-performing middle schools. "I never would've thought I would've been moving back into the city to accommodate my child," St. Claire said. "I'm very surprised that I'm as happy as I am."

Borrowing a concept from New York City, Alonso decided to give parents, teachers and students input into principal evaluations. Their responses to school climate surveys will be used in the evaluations starting this year. Alonso is also mandating that parents get formal input into school budgets. At 63 schools, the system has hired community organizers to boost parent involvement.

"This is the first time I can tell you in many, many years that I felt I was part of my child's education," said Pat Mohamad, who has been involved in city schools for more than 20 years, first for her daughter and now her grandchildren. Before, she said, "you asked about the budget, and no one said a thing to you about it. Now it's broken down so even I can understand it. He just opened things up for parents and made us feel a part of everything."

Once he established his credibility with families, Alonso could start asking for their help.

Last April, after a cell phone video of a student fighting a teacher at Reginald Lewis High School made national news, Alonso issued a public call for 500 people to sign up to volunteer in city schools. Some scoffed at the idea, but within a month, more than 700 people had signed up. Alonso doubled his goal to 1,000 and met it.

BUILD, the advocacy group that got the repairs it sought, became an important ally. Last year, Alonso and school board Chairman Brian Morris were so inconspicuous when they went to Annapolis to lobby against state funding cuts to education that they were nearly shut out of a crowded hearing room. This year, during the first week of the General Assembly's session, Alonso was invited to speak at a rally organized by BUILD that drew 400 people from around the state.

On the frigid January evening, Alonso recounted to the crowd how well public schools had worked for him after he immigrated to New Jersey from Cuba at age 12. As he went through his life, he said, he's asked himself over and over, "What is it about this country and what is it about the manifestation of the American dream that has meant that for so many students - for so many students - it hasn't worked like it worked for me?"

From street to school
Alonso thought he'd seen it all in Newark, where he was a special education teacher for a dozen years. Just wait, people told him when he first got to Baltimore, until the weather gets warm.

After the video of the Reginald Lewis fight surfaced, he conceded: The violence in Newark can't compare with what happens in Baltimore in the heat.

Amid the frenzy that ensued, Alonso started to feel beaten down. He went that Saturday to the system's early childhood fair, where parents were registering their children for pre-kindergarten and kids were getting immunizations and playing games. He stayed for nearly two and a half hours, stopping at every table and posing for pictures with families and school staff.

"It reminded me of why I came here, and what I said in my first day - I was here to love the kids," he said that afternoon. "And I fundamentally think that the reason there is violence is as much about people not loving the kids as about lack of capacity or the spillover from the outside."

As April wore on, violence outside of schools severely disrupted the learning process. Within three days, a student from Booker T. Washington Middle was found murdered in an apartment, a police officer was shot near Alexander Hamilton Elementary, and a student from Frederick Douglass High was shot in the face in the same neighborhood. On four days, five schools had to keep kids locked in their classrooms.

Alonso attended a PTA meeting that week at one of the city's top-performing schools, Mount Royal Elementary/Middle. Children sang and danced for him, performing to the Gloria Estefan song "Morenita" as a nod to his Cuban heritage, and he gave them multiple standing ovations. Still, smiles and laughter didn't flow as easily for him that night as they normally do when he's around parents and kids.

During the question-and-answer part of the meeting, an elderly woman approached the microphone.