Saying that they have snagged one of the nation's most innovative administrators, Baltimore school board members named New York City's No. 2 education official yesterday as their next chief executive officer.
Andres Alonso, a Cuban immigrant who turns 50 today, will leave his job overseeing instruction in the nation's largest school district to take on one of the toughest assignments in urban education.
In Baltimore, he will inherit a school system less than one-tenth the size of the one he works in now, but one beset with problems that include a decades-old special education lawsuit and deteriorating buildings.
Introducing himself to the community yesterday at school system headquarters, Alonso said he is coming to Baltimore for the long haul. His contract will be for four years, the legal limit, but he said he would have made a longer commitment if the law allowed and will face penalties if he leaves early. He will be the system's sixth leader in the past decade.
"I am here to stay," he told 150 politicians, administrators and community activists, vowing to meet each of them in the next three months. "But in order to stay, I need your help. It's never about one person."
The crowd softened to Alonso - a bearded, bespectacled bachelor - over the course of his remarks, eventually giving him a standing ovation. But many in the room were friends and supporters of interim CEO Charlene Cooper Boston, who publicly said she had applied for the job. Boston's eyes filled with tears as she thanked everyone for "a great year."
Boston, a longtime city schools administrator and superintendent in Wicomico County before that, took the helm a year ago, after Bonnie S. Copeland stepped down.
Interim CEO praised
"Dr. Boston came back to us like an angel at a time when we needed her help," school board Chairman Brian D. Morris said at the public gathering. In a statement, he said Boston was "a very strong finalist" for the long-term position.
"We dared to go after a coveted, transformational educator," Morris said in the statement. "We went after the best, and we got him."
Alonso said he got a call about a month and a half ago from a representative of PROACT Search Inc., which the school board had hired to find a new CEO. He said he was happy in his current job but agreed to a confidential meeting with the board, and that one meeting led to another.
In his new role, Alonso said, he sees the opportunity to help a system that is a manageable size to realize its potential. New York has more than 1 million students; Baltimore has 83,000. New York has more than 2,000 school buildings; Baltimore has fewer than 200.
He said he would not have accepted the offer if the school board hadn't committed itself to giving him the authority to make decisions and "cut through the politics" that typically surround the city schools.
The announcement was made as test scores were released showing substantial progress in New York City and Baltimore. Morris said he expects Alonso to take Baltimore's steady progress and make it "exponential."
The announcement also was made in the same week that the journal Education Week released a study showing Baltimore with the third-worst high school graduation rate among the nation's biggest school systems in 2004. New York ranked fifth-worst.
Alonso said yesterday that he wants to be judged on Baltimore's graduation rate.
"If I don't have improvement in the graduation rate while I'm superintendent, I haven't done my job and somebody ought to fire me," he said in an interview with The Sun's editorial board, part of a whirlwind day of meetings.
He also said he would support paying qualified teachers more in hard-to-fill subject areas such as middle school math and science.
In every classroom, he said, he wants instruction tailored to students' individual needs, interventions for students who need extra help and a belief by the teacher that all children can learn.
Morris said Alonso was among about 25 candidates for the job, about half of whom the school board interviewed. The board must vote formally on a contract with Alonso, at which time his salary will be finalized and made public, Morris said.
Alonso said his salary this year as New York's deputy chancellor is $214,000. Boston's base salary is $212,000, with total compensation of $286,200 before bonuses.
Boston was well-liked in the school system, but some critics said that with so many old friends reporting to her, she had trouble holding people accountable.
In April, The Sun reported that the school board had passed a budget submitted by Boston's staff that was filled with errors and discrepancies. Last week, the newspaper reported that staff members had falsely certified making building repairs.
One of Boston's major accomplishments was repairing the fractured relationship between the city school system and the Maryland State Department of Education. But some said her good relationship with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick might have hurt her prospects for keeping the job because Grasmick clashed openly with Gov. Martin O'Malley when he was mayor.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the Baltimore union that represents principals and other administrators, was among those upset that the board did not keep Boston.
"It was a cold slap in the fact to Dr. Boston," Gittings said. "It was very demoralizing to put her through this [application process] knowing they were not going to put her in the position."
But Gittings heard rave reviews about Alonso from his counterpart in New York.
"Baltimore has really picked up a gem," said Ernest Logan, president of New York City's principals union. He said Alonso cares about educating poor, minority children because he was one and "could've been a throwaway kid himself."
Alonso and his family fled Cuba when he was 12. He arrived in Union City, N.J., speaking no English but found mentors in the public schools who saw his potential and encouraged him to apply to Columbia University.
He graduated from Columbia magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa, then earned a law degree from Harvard University.
"With me, there were people who saw beyond a language problem, people who saw beyond the poverty," he said.
After working as a corporate lawyer in New York for a few years, Alonso became a special-education teacher in the Newark, N.J., public schools in 1987. For 11 years, he taught students classified as emotionally disturbed, and students learning English as a second language. During that time, he became the legal guardian of one of his students.
In 1998, Alonso entered Harvard's elite Urban Superintendents Program. He earned a master's degree in education from Harvard in 1999 and a doctorate from Harvard last year.
Joel I. Klein, the chancellor of the New York City schools, recruited Alonso from Harvard in 2003. Alonso was chief of staff to the deputy chancellor for instruction, Carmen Farina. When Farina retired last year, he succeeded her. He said he made it a habit to visit one to two schools a day.
Name kept secret
In Baltimore's education circles, Alonso was largely unknown as a candidate until yesterday morning. Alonso said he would not have agreed to be a candidate for the job if his name had not been kept confidential, because he loved his job in New York and had no intention of leaving.
For weeks, speculation jumped from one name to another.
Last month, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings was among those who said Gregory Thornton, chief academic officer in Philadelphia, was a finalist for the Baltimore job.
In the past week, conversations had shifted to such candidates as Rudy Crew, a former New York City chancellor who is Miami's superintendent, and Jose Torres, a former assistant superintendent in Anne Arundel County who is a regional superintendent in Chicago.
Some education advocates were concerned that the public was not given an opportunity to meet the CEO finalists, as has been customary in the past. School board members told them they would be so happy with the choice that they wouldn't care that they hadn't had input. (The board did issue a community survey asking for preferred qualities in a leader.)
Mayor Sheila Dixon said last week that she hadn't heard from Morris after requesting to meet the finalists. Morris said Dixon was the only person outside the school board who had met Alonso before yesterday.
Dixon said she had "some reservations" about Alonso, mostly about bringing in someone so unfamiliar with Baltimore. But "we had a very good meeting," she said. "I slept on it. I prayed on it."
National education observers said Alonso will win over any detractors.
Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said Alonso is "in the top tier of talent among urban school leaders across the country."
"Congratulations to Baltimore, and kudos to the board for recruiting him," Casserly said. "I'm smiling. I think it's a great choice."
Sun reporter Nicole Fuller contributed to this article.
Read The Sun education blog at www.baltimoresun.com/classroom.