When Andres Alonso "fell" into teaching after ditching his job as a Wall Street lawyer, he took on a special education class in Newark, N.J., and dedicated himself to serving emotionally disturbed children for more than a decade, eventually becoming the legal guardian of one of his former students.
To those who have watched Alonso's life evolve from those early days as a classroom teacher to a deputy chancellor of New York's behemoth school system, the man who is the new chief executive officer for Baltimore's schools didn't just switch jobs, he found his calling.
"He is the genuine article," said Robert Peterkin, director of the Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, from which Alonso received his doctoral degree last year. "He is the type of educator all of our inner cities need. I am excited about him bringing his intellect and his commitment to Baltimore."
Meria Carstarphen, the superintendent of the St. Paul (Minn.) school system and a Harvard classmate of Alonso's, said she has absolute confidence in his abilities as an educator. "Andres is so focused on his constituents - students, teachers and families," Carstarphen said. "Whatever he decides to do in Baltimore, it will be the right thing for the right reason at the right time."
Emigrated from Cuba
There was more praise for Alonso - who emigrated with his family to the United States from Cuba when he was 12 years old - from city school board officials, who introduced Alonso, 50, as the head of the city's 83,000-student school system at an afternoon news conference.
"This is great news," said Brian Morris, chairman of the Baltimore Board of School Commissioners, which has spent the past several months looking for a replacement for former CEO Bonnie S. Copeland, who left the position last year. Charlene Cooper Boston was given the position on an interim basis; her contract expires at the end of the month.
"We think we got our man," said Morris during a meeting with Alonso and The Sun's editorial board a few hours before the news conference. "This selection is as important, if not more important, than who is going to be the next mayor."
Alonso said he decided to take the Baltimore job after he met with board members, despite his strong ties to New York - as a youth he lived in Union City, N.J., across the Hudson River from New York, and later received his bachelor's degree from Columbia University in Manhattan.
"I felt that there was a connection," Alonso said, referring to his first meeting with the Baltimore school board. Two more meetings would follow, and "at a certain point, it became not 'Why Baltimore?' but 'How could it not be Baltimore?'" said Alonso, who has resigned as deputy chancellor for teaching and learning with the New York school system so he can begin his new job in Baltimore on July 1.
Alonso has spent his life in dogged pursuit of education - to survive in a strange new land, expand his knowledge of the world, and create new learning challenges for children.
When his family arrived in the U.S. on the day before Thanksgiving 1969, Alonso, the oldest of four children, didn't speak English well. But his parents set high standards for their children, and Alonso quickly picked up the language and excelled in school, according to his father, Bracilio Alonso, 80, a retired banking industry auditor who lives in Weehawken, N.J.
"He is a special person, I am so proud," said the father.
Alonso received his law degree from Harvard in 1982 and then got a job at a Wall Street law firm. But two years later, he left the legal world to travel across America and to visit Europe and Israel.
When he returned after about a year of wandering the globe, he started work as a special education teacher at the Samuel L. Berliner School in Newark. There, he bonded with students, including Joel, a teenager whom he would eventually call his son.
Alonso took legal custody of the boy in 1990 when he was 15 and no longer his student. Alonso encouraged Joel to take mainstream classes and earn a regular diploma, according to a July 2006 profile of the educator by The New York Times. "The challenges of taking him out of special education, creating expectations so he could succeed, working with people ... in order to make sure that he was mainstreamed successfully, informs a lot of what I think," Alonso told The Times. "Expectations for kids make an extraordinary difference."
It was Alonso's dedication to his students at the Newark school that led Harvard's Peterkin to encourage the teacher to attend the superintendents training program, a highly competitive program that has trained an elite cadre of education leaders.
"There are a lot of people with good intentions in every field, and education is crowded with them, but there are very few people who are willing to demonstrate the respect and the understanding of what it takes to educate children well and pursue that," said Peterkin. "He was a successful lawyer. He chose to go and work with very difficult children. He stayed in that classroom, and that is where he came to my attention."
Alonso entered the superintendents program in 1998, the same year as Carstarphen, who recalls the strong impression he made on her and other students.
"He talked about kids [in Cuba] who were put in labor camps and about making balloons out of animal bladders," said Carstarphen. "He understands our children in poverty. He understands what is happening to kids of color. He can think through tough [urban] problems. It is all tied to his own personal experiences and his desire to see other children have the same opportunities as he did."
As part of his graduate education, Alonso spent a year as an executive intern to the superintendent of schools in Springfield, Mass. During that time, he led "learning walks" for principals to help them identify teaching areas that needed improvement.
"He is very comfortable in schools and can pick out what is working and not working at a glance," Peterkin said of Alonso.
Alonso was hired as chief of staff of New York's teaching and learning division in 2003 and promoted to deputy chancellor and head of the department shortly before his graduation from Harvard's Graduate School of Education in June 2006.
In an interview yesterday, Joel I. Klein, chancellor of the New York school system, said Alonso has "enormously high standards." He said Alonso oversaw the school system's 10 regional superintendents and played an integral role in revamping the system's math and science curriculums. Klein said that recently released gains on the New York State Math Assessments among elementary and middle school students are evidence of Alonso's success.
"He's a terrifically talented guy," Klein said. "We lost him to a challenge that is comparable with our culture. I think he has all the right stuff to move the Baltimore school system in the right direction."
Alonso said yesterday that he wants to "learn the system" in Baltimore before he makes any major changes. However, he said he is adamant about setting high educational goals for all children - not just the smart ones or those from advantaged households. "Schools for me are all about possibility," he said yesterday. "Far too often, they're about possibilities denied. My life story is about possibilities grasped."