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Six steps for post-Alonso school progress

While Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso deserves thanks for six game-changing years in Baltimore, the transformation he presided over owes as much to the vision and resolve of a city school board that insisted on fostering choice and accountability while also investing more in the schools. The board must now stay the course on institutional reform and move forward with an even sharper focus on academic achievement.

First, it should maintain a strict focus on the core principles of our turnaround: school choice and the "fair student funding" that undergirds this market-oriented approach to opening and closing schools.

In recent years, we have gone from five to 56 "schools of choice" that are open to all students — perhaps the largest such growth of any system in the country. Baltimore has also shown the way by closing 26 underperforming schools and preparing to close 26 more as the board and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake implement a bold $1.1 billion bond financing and reconstruction program. In all, Baltimore will have closed more than 50 of its 200 schools and replaced them with schools that families are choosing.

Second, those choice schools will only be as effective as their principals, and Interim CEO Tisha Edwards — herself a former principal with experience across the system — should focus her efforts on giving school leaders the tools to manage effectively, replacing a culture of "command and control" with a collaboratively developed approach to the autonomy and support necessary to excellence. The system made progress in this direction under Mr. Alonso, but it needs to go farther.

The 200 principals who lead our schools must believe that North Avenue is there for them, setting clear standards to which they might aspire, ready to support daily needs and never wasting their time with "administrivia" or unnecessary compliance. Ms. Edwards needs to ensure that those who work directly with principals understand and support the need for autonomy. Too many good principals have left Baltimore in favor of systems that support individual leadership.

Next, we must be sure that our choice-based system ensures that students and parents are making informed decisions as they state their preferences about middle and high schools. A recent innovation being administered across the system, School Effectiveness Reviews (SERs), can both drive school improvement and help parents use good data to find the right match. All schools should be evaluated regularly, the findings should drive programmatic improvement, and the results should be shared (perhaps through an independent party) with parents and the general public.

Equally important, the board and interim leader can build on the comprehensive strategy that has led to having 78 percent of children "ready for school," up from 27 percent. We should increase that figure to 90 percent by 2017; similarly, we should make it a goal to have 80 percent of our third-graders reading at grade level standards by 2022.

Such results would set the stage for a comprehensive commitment to prepare all of our youths for college or career. Baltimore can emulate other jurisdictions' commitment to track and support every aspect of children's development — challenging every agency that touches children's lives to do their job around the common goal of postsecondary achievement.

Finally, the school board needs to find a new leader who recognizes the institutional progress that has been realized and can apply that sort of strategy to improving the academic life for all of our students. We need a leader who knows how to support the art and science of teaching and the joy and discipline of learning. The Common Core curriculum and standards being rolled out across the country offer our youths the opportunity to become fully educated citizens, and our next CEO needs to be well versed in this new work.

As Mr. Alonso leaves, many indicators are positive. Enrollments and graduation rates are up, there are resources for school construction, and the unions are cooperating on contracts that reward performance. More broadly, the teenage pregnancy rate is down, private sector investment in public education is on the upswing, the city's population is beginning to grow, and a new economy is emerging.

Baltimore can sustain and accelerate its rebirth by staying focused on continuous school improvement. The school board and Mr. Alonso have prepared the groundwork. The board and new CEO have the opportunity to build on that groundwork and make Baltimore a place where all have an opportunity to thrive. We look forward to being partners in that quest.

Thomas E. Wilcox (twilcox@bcf.org) is president of the Baltimore Community Foundation. Diane Bell-McKoy is president & CEO of Associated Black Charities Inc. Laura Gamble is Maryland president for PNC Bank. All are trustees of the Baltimore Community Foundation.

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