Big Job

The Baltimore Sun

Andres Alonso officially becomes chief executive officer of the Baltimore City Public School System today. He will face daunting challenges as he oversees approximately 180 schools and 82,000 students in a system that is broadly viewed as seriously troubled. In an open letter to the new schools chief, Sun education reporter Sara Neufeld describes some of what's in store for him.

Dear Dr. Alonso,

Welcome to Baltimore. You've got a big job ahead of you as the new CEO of the public schools - so big, in fact, that some would say you're crazy for even trying. I don't know about New York, but this city doesn't think twice about chewing up its educational leaders and spitting them out like day-old lunch meat.

At the same time, an awful lot of people out there are hoping that you're the one who will be different. The one who will outlast the others. The one who will give our kids their passport to a bright future.

Remember the opportunity you got in school in New Jersey, when you showed up as a 12-year-old Cuban immigrant speaking no English and, a few short years later, found yourself bound for the Ivy League? Can you mass-reproduce that, please? On the order of 82,000 times?

Today, the first official day of your contract, I offer you a summary - a cheat sheet, if you will - of some of the challenges that will confront you in this formidable endeavor. From lawsuits to crumbling buildings to teacher turnover, the list is long, but it couldn't possibly cover everything. And, I'm sorry to say, many of the challenges have more to do with navigating politics and bureaucracies than with educating children.

Since most of your educational career has been in special education, let's start there.

Back in 1984, while you were still an attorney on Wall Street, some lawyers sued the Baltimore school system and the state of Maryland on behalf of children with disabilities, alleging they were being denied their right to a decent education.

Through all your time traveling the world, teaching in Newark, getting your master's and doctoral degrees from Harvard, rising through the ranks to the No. 2 position in New York City schools, the lawsuit carried on.

Twenty-three years later, the school system is still operating under a consent decree. It has yet to complete the 90,000-plus hours of makeup counseling, speech therapy and other services that it's owed to kids since 2005. There are court-ordered state administrators in every school system department that affects special education, from transportation to human resources. Those administrators will work alongside your staff, but they report to state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, not to you.

Getting along with Dr. Grasmick will be an important part of your job. As your predecessor Bonnie S. Copeland can attest, she can make your life a lot more difficult if she doesn't trust you - attempting to seize control of 11 of your failing schools, for example, as she did last year before the General Assembly blocked her.

But if the two of you get along too well, you may cross the governor, Martin O'Malley, who has made no secret of his dislike of his education secretary. He just hasn't been in office long enough to appoint a majority of the state school board that can orchestrate her ouster. Some speculate that a cozy relationship with Nancy hurt the outgoing interim CEO, Charlene Cooper Boston, in her pursuit of your new job.

Governor O'Malley, by the way, is a Democrat who used to be the mayor of Baltimore. At the polls last November, he defeated the former Republican governor, Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., an ally of Dr. Grasmick. But don't count the state superintendent out of the game just yet: With friends on both sides of the political aisle, she has outlasted a throng of politicians and is now the nation's longest-serving state superintendent.

This year, you'll have a mayoral election to contend with. Then there's the ongoing question of who should be your boss. Right now, you report to a school board appointed jointly by the mayor and the governor. That structure, dubbed the "city-state partnership," has been criticized for its failure to hold either partner accountable. You should have seen the blame game that went on three years ago when the city schools suffered a financial meltdown.

Some groups, such as the Baltimore branch of the NAACP, want you reporting to a locally elected school board. The proposal gaining more ground politically involves returning control of the city schools to the mayor, the way it used to be, and the way you're used to in New York.

The mayor ceded partial control of the schools to the state a decade ago in exchange for increased funding. The agreement was supposed to settle two other lawsuits, in which the American Civil Liberties Union and the city accuse the state of unlawfully underfunding Baltimore's schools. But those suits were merely consolidated, continuing today.

Speaking of lawsuits, I should mention the other big one, over charter school funding. Baltimore has more charters than the rest of the state combined, so it has become the battleground over how these privately run public schools should be funded. Some of the charter operators argue that they are entitled to as much money in cash as the system spends per kid in its regular schools. If you can figure out how much that is, more power to you. It's a lot more complicated than you'd realize.

That's the case with many things in the world of Baltimore education. One simple question you might ask: How many schools are there in the city? Well, that depends if you're counting the number of buildings or the number of programs within them, and how many times you count a school with multiple campuses.

A few months ago, I reported that the operating budgets the school board has adopted for the past two years contained tens of millions of dollars of errors and discrepancies. If the figures listed in the budget were correct, at least 460 employees would earn more than $200,000 in the upcoming school year, while more than 2,000 employees would earn less than $9,000.

In response, system officials tried to pass off a document that the school board had adopted in a televised meeting as merely a draft. They said that some salary line items included money for temporary workers, severance pay and stipends, even though that wasn't indicated anywhere in the document. Also, they said, sometimes employees were budgeted on different pages than their salaries.

Got that? Good.

One of your biggest challenges may well be getting straight answers and accurate information out of your own staff. State inspectors recently caught the system lying about making promised building repairs. The state's school construction chief said he didn't believe that top system officials knowingly provided false information, but rather that employees were feeding them false data. A lack of accountability, he said, is "very entrenched" in the culture of the city schools.

Until recently, the public struggled just to get school board agendas in advance of meetings. Basic public information can still be hard to come by.

Privately, teachers and principals complain of intense pressure to keep their suspension numbers low, for fear of their school being labeled "persistently dangerous." Oftentimes, that means disruptive students get sent back to class without punishment, or get sent home off the books.

Publicly, you won't hear much candor from the rank and file. Speaking up can lead to disciplinary action, and that's not a risk many people want to take.

Much as Baltimore likes to bill itself as a big city, it is in many ways a small, insular place, and one that hasn't always had the best track record with outsiders - particularly outsiders from New York. We've been through a few police chiefs from your town, one of whom ended up indicted, plus a schools chief and a high-level schools administrator who brought CosmoGIRL! to English classrooms.

At North Avenue (that's code for school system headquarters), you'll be working with many administrators who grew up professionally with Dr. Boston and wanted to see her get your job. Many are members of African-American fraternities and sororities, and they are fiercely devoted to one another. The racial tension in the system is real. On top of that, people are worried that you'll replace them with your own coterie.

But I digress. You're here to focus on academics.

The last CEO from New York, Carmen Russo, sold Baltimore on a major one of your reforms: breaking up big high schools into smaller, more personalized environments. Now several years into that experiment, the test results at the city's neighborhood high schools have yet to turn around. In the next few years, though, you have to get the scores up, or thousands of kids will be denied their diplomas when 2009 comes around and they're required to pass state graduation exams.

You say you want to be judged on the city's graduation rate, and fired if it doesn't go up. Your starting point is debatable, depending on which figures you believe. In the worst-case scenario (a study by Education Week), only a third of our students are making it through high school on time, the third-worst rate in the nation. In the best-case scenario (the state's official statistics), 40 percent of our high school students are slipping through the cracks.

Lately, the city has been focused on the dismal state of its middle schools. The school board has voted to close many of them and expand elementary schools to serve pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. (The system has to close schools anyway, because it has way more space than it has students, and the state won't keep providing construction money otherwise. So people figured they might as well close schools that are failing.)

Parents of middle-schoolers perceive that the K-8 schools are safer. But principals and teachers report having inadequate resources - libraries, science labs and the like - to meet the needs of older children.

At all grade levels, it's easy to get off task.

Every year, schools lose instructional days when the heat becomes too great. In schools that don't shut down, you'll get complaints in the winter that everyone is freezing and in the summer that everyone is melting.

Most of the buildings are too old for central air conditioning to be installed. Baltimore's school buildings are the oldest in Maryland, and historically they have been neglected, with work orders undone and money for construction projects unspent. The system determined last year that it would cost $2.7 billion to give the city's children the facilities they deserve. That may not seem like much by New York standards, but it's several times more than the school construction budgets for all 24 school systems in Maryland combined.

Every year, there is high teacher and administrative turnover, and a large number of classes are staffed with substitutes. Employees quit saying they feel beaten down and unappreciated. The system spends millions of dollars - $19 million annually, according to one recent study - training teachers who leave, often for cushier jobs in the suburbs. It has hired hundreds of teachers from the Philippines, but their visas only permit them to stay temporarily.

Every year, learning is disrupted by tragedy and violence. Teachers compete with gangs for kids' attention and loyalty. Last October, an 8-year-old brought a loaded revolver to school, and another 8-year-old discharged it in a desk.

You've become known for your saying, "The children come as is." In Baltimore, the children come to school traumatized by the violence and poverty that surrounds them. Their parents come as is, too, and if they're addicted to drugs, in prison or dead, as some are, they're not going to be attending PTA meetings. Many parents had negative school experiences themselves, and they don't know how to navigate the bureaucracy to help their kids.

Back when you were a teacher, you took in a boy who needed a good home and made him your son. Now that you're the CEO, you'll be charged with educating thousands of kids who won't get that kind of break.

The good news is, there are already schools in Baltimore doing that successfully. Most elementary and middle schools made progress on the latest round of standardized tests, and a handful of schools serving needy kids have scores that are off the charts.

At one of the city's charter schools, KIPP Ujima Village Academy, a Johns Hopkins researcher found that 100 percent of students who stayed for four years passed their eighth-grade math test, compared with 19 percent in a control group. Unfortunately, the researcher also concluded that translating KIPP's success to other city middle schools would be challenging and costly.

But, at the elementary level at least, some regular schools are producing the same kind of stellar results. Take a look at George Washington Elementary and Cecil Elementary. Cecil is just steps away from the site of last month's rowhouse fire that killed eight members in a family so poor it had 13 people living under one roof. Yet 98 percent of the school's fourth- and fifth- graders passed their state test in math.

It's no secret - I've heard you say it yourself - that those kind of results can only come when a school has a great principal and great teachers. But how do we get that kind of leadership and support for every child?

That's where you come in.

I wish you the best.

Andres Alonso

The Baltimore public school system's new CEO has an extraordinary personal and professional history.

He spoke no English when he moved to the United States from Cuba at the age of 12. He attended public schools in New Jersey and went on to graduate magna cum laude from Columbia University before completing his J.D. at Harvard Law School.

He practiced law in New York City before changing course to become an educator and taught special education and English language students for 12 years in the Newark, N.J., public schools. In the late 1990s, Alonso was selected for Harvard University's elite Urban Superintendents Program, where he earned master's and doctoral degrees in educational administration.

Alonso, 50, last served as New York City's deputy chancellor for teaching and learning.

Never a dull moment

Here is a sampling of the challenges Andres Alonso will face when he becomes chief executive officer of the Baltimore school system today.

Politics: Navigating a feud between the governor and the state superintendent, and sidestepping the politics of the city's mayoral race.

Special education: Trying to end a federal class-action lawsuit that's dragged on since 1984.

Facilities: Running an educational system in crumbling buildings, without adequate money to fix them.

Staff loyalty: Gaining acceptance as an outsider in an insular system.

Middle school achievement: Turning around the city's failing middle schools and ensuring that elementary schools expanding to serve sixth through eighth grades have needed resources.

High school achievement: Preparing thousands of students to pass state graduation exams and improving the graduation rate.

Teacher and administrative turnover: Recruiting and maintaining a stable work force.

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