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Alonso gets ahead by putting kids first

The Baltimore Sun

NEW YORK -- There was no private office. Andres Alonso sat behind a simple desk in a corner of Room 320 - an open, airy space filled with a cluster of about 25 cubicles with low partitions, a design element to encourage greater interaction.

Just steps away from Alonso's desk, inside the grand building that houses New York City's Department of Education administrative offices in Lower Manhattan, sat his boss, Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Alonso, the No. 2 education administrator in New York, who was named the chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools last week, has earned a reputation for his accessibility and his fierce loyalty to students.

Those qualities have earned him the deep respect of many of his colleagues - from his boss, to the 10 regional superintendents he oversees, to the principal of an elementary school with about 700 students - in a system that dwarfs Baltimore's.

More than 1 million students are enrolled in New York City's 2,000 school buildings, compared with Baltimore's 83,000 students.

Colleagues in New York describe Alonso, who left his job as a Wall Street attorney to become a teacher for special education students in Newark, N.J., as highly intelligent but able to speak simply about complicated issues, a man who brings his high standards to every project he tackles and expects the same from his staff.

Michael Best, the general counsel to the chancellor, has worked with Alonso on pressing legal issues confronting the school system, such as teacher misconduct cases and several pending class action lawsuits on behalf of special education students.

"If anybody in Baltimore thinks they're going to be able to outpace him politically, oh man, they're sadly mistaken. ... But it is always, always on behalf of kids," Best said. "And anybody who has a different agenda better get out of his way. ... He's tough. He's not naive. He knows how to work through [one] of the biggest bureaucracies in the world."

Dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy might well be Alonso's biggest challenge when he starts in Baltimore next month. Over the years, the city school system has earned a reputation for defeating the best-made plans of a long succession of leaders with lofty ideas and sparkling credentials. Alonso will inherit the wreckage left behind - unfinished educational agendas and conflicting policies.

When city school board Chairman Brian Morris introduced Alonso to The Sun's editorial board on Wednesday, he said, "We think we got our man."

In New York, Alonso's colleagues said the same. Klein described Alonso as a "star" who has the "deliberate mind of a lawyer" and "the experience of an educator."

"He's a man who actually taught special education and English language for over a decade," Klein said, adding: "I've never had a conversation with him when he wasn't totally up to speed on the research. He spent, while he was my deputy, a significant amount of time in schools, coaching principals, teachers. He's known as a world-class educator."

Alonso's mettle as an educator and a lawyer - he holds a degree from Harvard Law School - will be quickly tested in Baltimore. The school system has the nation's third-worst graduation rate among big systems, according to the journal Education Week, and it is embroiled in a decades-old special education lawsuit.

Baltimore's school buildings are old, and its recordkeeping is so poor that the system's outgoing interim CEO threatened to discipline principals who fail to keep track of their students. Its bookkeepers draft operating budgets with figures that don't check out, and state inspectors found that school employees falsely reported the completion of promised building repairs.

Elaine Gorman, an instructional superintendent in New York who previously oversaw curriculum in Baltimore County schools, said, "I can say, knowing the community, knowing the city, knowing the state, Dr. Alonso will be a tremendous asset. He will have no difficulty with the transition to Baltimore City.

"He's a very quick study," she added. "He will get input from everybody to know the context. He is not presumptuous at all. He is a willing learner and a willing listener and takes input from everybody. But he's decisive in what he believes, and it's about children."

Alonso has, in fairly short order, first as chief of staff and then in his current position as deputy, undertaken ambitious projects in New York: creating a core curriculum for the entire school system and making changes to science and math curricula.

Math test scores released last week show great improvements for New York City's third- through eighth-graders in annual statewide exams.

The city had double-digit jumps in three of the grades. About 65 percent of the students are at grade level or above, a rise of about 8 percentage points, the largest since 1999, state officials said.

Students with disabilities, in whom Alonso has shown a particular interest, also showed progress, increasing their scores at the highest levels of achievement by 8 percentage points.

Alonso's tireless work ethic, his colleagues say, has him working more than 12 hours most days, dashing off to educational meetings on Saturdays and hosting conference calls on weekends to complete projects on deadline.

Alonso, 50, is not married, but in 1990 he took legal custody of a 15-year-old boy he met while working as a Newark special education teacher.

In recently years, as the demands of the job have increased, Alonso has had to cut back on some of his hobbies. For example, he has not had much time for tennis, a sport he enjoys. A movie buff, he has watched hundreds and counts Spanish director Pedro Almodovar as his favorite.

At a news conference in Baltimore last week announcing his new position, Alonso, who immigrated to the United States from Cuba with his family when he was 12, spoke of his humble beginnings.

He said he remembers having a paper route in his neighborhood in Union City, N.J., across the Hudson River from New York, and panicking about how he would communicate in English with one of his customers. But, Alonso said, he had teachers and mentors who believed in him and urged him to apply to Columbia University.

He graduated from Harvard Law School and became a lawyer, leaving the high-paying career for an inner-city teaching position, where he would stay for 11 years. He later earned a master's degree in education from Harvard and completed a doctoral program for educators there, where he was plucked to work as a chief of staff to his predecessor in 2003.

Alonso's easy, friendly demeanor, colleagues say, should not be misconstrued as timidity. They say he is someone who will fight vigorously to ensure that the result is always what is best for children.

"He is very soft-spoken, but when you listen to him, his words, they're very impactful," said Yvonne Harris, a regional superintendent in the Bronx. "I think people listen to him when he speaks. I hope the soft-spokenness is not a perceived indication of him being a pushover, because he's not."

In testimony to the New York City Council on English language learners a couple of years ago, he stood his ground under fierce questioning. And he has had to work to build consensus outside of the school system, such as during a meeting on the reorganization of three high schools in Brooklyn late last year with about 20 public officials, including the president of the Borough of Brooklyn.

Marty Markowitz, the borough president, worked with Alonso on the failing schools and found him to be cooperative and inclusive, even though he did not have to be.

"Under our system, the deputy chancellor reports to the mayor and does not have to be responsive to other elected officials," Markowitz said. "He, however, was responsive. He was very active in getting out in the field."

At a community meeting in March, according to the Staten Island Advance, Alonso stayed 105 minutes beyond the half-hour he promised, to hear parents' complaints about special education issues.

"Everybody wants to do remedies," said Terence Tolbert, the executive director of the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs for New York City schools, who attended the meeting on the Brooklyn high schools restructuring. "He has to go before politicians and say, 'Listen, here is the data, and this is how kids aren't being served.' He handled it professionally and did it respectfully, but he was very firm about what the goal was: educating the children. He's not going to back down."

Robert Jackson, a member of the New York City Council and chairman of the Education Committee, met with Alonso for the first time about a year ago.

Alonso arranged the meeting. Jackson figured it would be nothing more than an exchange of pleasantries followed by a parting handshake.

But Alonso came into Jackson's office and shut the door. About 90 minutes later, the two men emerged.

Jackson, recalling the extended conversation, said he doubts Baltimore's new top person in the schools system will have any trouble winning over local politicians.

"We talked about education and his background and where he came from," Jackson said. "We talked about how he was visiting at least one school every single day. For the deputy chancellor to be on top of things like that, talking to leaders, it's extremely important."

Reginald H. Landeau Jr., principal of the George J. Ryan Middle School in Fresh Meadows, Queens, remembers meeting Alonso at a conference on middle schools, and over time sharing his wish for more professional development time for his school's 65 teachers.

"About 10 days ago, I was at [the Department of Education building]," Landeau said. "He saw me as I was actually getting ready to go down to a focus group. When he saw me he said, 'Come and see me when you're done.' For a deputy chancellor to do that for a lowly principal, to sit down with me to really deal with an issue, it's paramount. That's what kind of leader he is."

Michele Cahill worked with Alonso daily back when she was a senior counselor to the chancellor for education policy. Cahill, now a vice president at Carnegie Corp., said Alonso set high standards for every student.

"Andres is deeply committed to getting achievement and equity," Cahill said. "Achievement by all students. Our theme in New York is 'Children first.' And that's how you keep your eye on the prize, what is good for children. He's capable of making hard decisions based on putting children first."

Once every two weeks, he held a staff meeting with the city's regional superintendents. "For me, he was always a respectful boss. He wanted your expertise," said Marcia Lyles, a regional superintendent already picked to assume Alonso's position. "He did not micromanage at all but wanted to be informed and kept involved."

While tackling the challenge of boosting test scores, Alonso has kept his rigorous schedule of visiting schools and getting to know educators at all levels.

Linda Amill-Irizarry, principal of P.S. 100, an elementary school in the Soundview section of the Bronx, said she invited Alonso to visit when he was first introduced as deputy chancellor last June.

In late September, she said, she received a call that he would be coming.

"I invite a lot of people to visit P.S. 100, and they're very busy - and he did come," Amill-Irizarry said. "He did spend the morning here. He really wanted to know about the children and wanted to sit down with the children. He just came in and wanted to see what we were all about. That really, really impressed us that he did come, and asked me about the staff and the children and was genuinely interested."

Subsequently, she developed a rapport with him, e-mailing him for advice or with questions.

"This can be a very isolating job, where you feel like you don't have anyone to turn to, but with him, he was generally interested, he knows who you are," Amill-Irizarry said. "If he went to a meeting, he would recognize the people. You e-mail him and he will respond. If he doesn't know the answer, he'll find out.

"I was a little upset that he was leaving. But he will be great anywhere he goes."

Andres Alonso

Age: 50

Previous job: Deputy chancellor in New York City school system

Education: Bachelor's degree from Columbia University; law degree, master's and doctorate from Harvard

Family: Single

Personal: Emigrated from Cuba at age 12. Worked as a Wall Street lawyer before teaching special education in Newark, N.J.

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