Education chief talks of change

The Baltimore Sun

The Baltimore school system's new chief executive officer told city principals yesterday that one of his top priorities will be giving them more autonomy to run their schools as they see fit.

Andres Alonso also wants budgets centered on individual schools, not a central bureaucracy, and he wants instruction tailored to individual students' needs.

Asked about his plans to reform Baltimore's beleaguered school system, the 50-year-old Cuban immigrant was quick to say he doesn't know yet. Often, new superintendents come in and implement whatever they did in the place they were in last, and the reforms fail because they aren't right for the new place.

Alonso, the deputy chancellor in New York City, is treading carefully as he presents himself in his new hometown, promising to thoroughly evaluate what's right for Baltimore before making any drastic changes. He's well aware that many in the public are wary of whether someone who two months ago had never stepped foot in the city is the best choice to lead its schools.

At the same time, Baltimore is already following New York's lead on multiple reforms, chief among them breaking up big neighborhood high schools into smaller, more personalized environments. Both cities are in the midst of trying to overhaul their failing middle schools.

And as insistent as Alonso is about using his first few months in his new job as a time for listening, common threads about his educational philosophy emerged in two days of public appearances.

In a meeting with principals yesterday at Polytechnic Institute, Alonso said he considers the school accountability structure established by the federal No Child Left Behind Act "crazy." He believes schools should be rewarded for growth over time -- not just punished if they don't meet government-imposed benchmarks -- and individual classrooms should be recognized for high performance.

The principals asked Alonso for his views on topics including charter schools (he supports them but wants to make regular public schools competitive) and alternative education (to the greatest extent possible, he wants struggling students to get help in their schools rather than transferring to a segregated alternative setting).

Poly Principal Barney Wilson, who oversees the city's top-performing high school, asked how Alonso would balance his goal of equity while maintaining the pockets of excellence that are already established.

"I believe that different children need different things," Alonso replied. "I believe in equity, but I believe in equity toward excellence."

Ivy League degrees

Well-versed in education theory, Alonso has four Ivy League degrees, three of them from Harvard. But for the second time in a year, he is moving into a highly visible position where he is viewed as an outsider and needs to earn the public trust.

Though Alonso grew up across the river from New York, in Union City, N.J., and worked at a New York law firm and taught for more than a decade in Newark, he was a newcomer to the New York City school system when he was recruited in 2003.

He worked behind the scenes as chief of staff to two deputy chancellors, Diana Lam and Carmen Farina, before moving into the highly visible role last summer. At that time, he faced criticism that he had never served as a principal or midlevel administrator.

"He was a little awkward coming in," said Tim Johnson, chairman of the Chancellor's Parent Advisory Council. "It was a big, complicated bureaucracy, and he had never worked in it. ... He was sort of an invisible deputy to his predecessor."

But Johnson said people liked Alonso because he is nice, smart, dedicated and light-handed in his leadership. "He's not real autocratic," Johnson said, predicting that Alonso will be well-liked in Baltimore. "His heart is in the right place."

In Baltimore, Alonso is taking over for a popular interim CEO, Charlene Cooper Boston, who spent more than 35 years in the system and was publicly turned down for the permanent position. At system headquarters yesterday, Boston publicly presented the city's test scores that were released this week, showing double-digit gains in math in fourth through sixth grades.

Boston said she is leaning toward becoming a consultant after she hands over the reins of the system to Alonso on July 1. Alonso, meanwhile, will inherit a battery of long-standing problems.

He said he plans to get to work immediately on the system's decades-old special-education lawsuit. (Boston also said the lawsuit would be at the forefront of her agenda when she became interim CEO a year ago.) All of Alonso's experience in Newark involved teaching special-education students, and he became the legal guardian of one of them.

Kids 'at the margin'

With special education, he said, he wants to focus on the kids "at the margin" -- those who need extra help but are not severely disabled, those who need early intervention and advocacy. "Those kids are the canary in the mine," he said, "the first ones to die of the poisonous gases."

In New York, Alonso carried out the decision of a predecessor to close the city's remaining schools for pregnant girls. In Baltimore, he said, he would support keeping the Laurence G. Paquin Middle/High School for pregnant girls and teen mothers if it is producing successful student outcomes.

Talk of 'leverage'

In his public appearances, Alonso repeatedly talked about "levers," targeted areas to focus on as leverage to improve schools.

Recruiting excellent principals and then giving them the autonomy to make decisions is at the heart of his agenda.

He said he supports spending money to pay teachers more in hard-to-fill subject areas. But money spent on a more popular reform, class-size reduction, should be spent carefully, he said. Class-size reduction creates job openings in high-performing schools as well as low-performing ones, creating an opportunity for teachers in low-performing schools to flee.

Regardless of the specifics of the reforms he will eventually implement, Alonso said, the key to success will be the belief among all staff that even the neediest children can learn.

"I believe that deeply," he told the principals at Poly. "It can be done. It will be done. It must be done."

Sun reporter Brent Jones contributed to this article.

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