Baltimore schools will succeed because they can't afford to fail

The Baltimore Sun

When I was growing up in Cuba in the 1960s, I went to schools with 45 students in a classroom, where we shared textbooks and spent two months out of the year working in the countryside and attending lessons in buildings with dirt floors.

The country was undergoing a social revolution, with nearly a tenth of the population leaving for political exile. Everyone was poor. The great majority of the students were of color. And yet, there was never any doubt or even thought of the possibility that we would not learn.

Forty years later, Cuba still struggles politically and socially and has one of the poorest economies in the world. People leave in rafts. But the school system is a wonder of consistent educational achievement for all.

In conversations about urban education, whether in Baltimore, in Washington, D.C., or in New York City, the unremitting attention to social ills as the rationale for this society's failure to educate many poor black and Latino students is a canard. It masks a failure of will and imagination on the part of our society, and gives a pass to those whose responsibility is to educate the children.

How are the children? I asked in my introduction to the Baltimore City communities. Two months after that introduction, I cannot wait to begin visiting classrooms and making sure that the answers to that question eventually become "Doing better!" and "Great!"

There is no doubt in my mind that we will do better, despite the condition of the buildings, despite the difficulties in attracting highly qualified teachers, despite the endless history of politics that it is my job to cut through, despite the fundamental fact that this school system has seen a decline of roughly 30,000 students in the past 12 years and increased the number of adults in the system by nearly 2,000, leaving little room for after-school programs and direct services to students.

There is no doubt in my mind because my decisions will be based on principle, not politics. There is no doubt in my mind because the resources will go to the schools to be used for direct services to children. There is no doubt in my mind because everyone will be accountable for support of the schools, and the schools will be accountable for support of students and parents, and the accountability measures we will use will be simple, clear and meaningful to the schools and the community.

There is no doubt in my mind because we are at a critical point in this city and this school system, and I already know, after meetings with seemingly thousands of parents and community partners, that there is extraordinary good faith and willingness in this city on behalf of the schools, coexisting with the negativity and prophecies of doom that are often part of the rhetoric about the schools.

People get it: The city cannot afford to continue to let the schools fail.

Why am I so sure it can be done? It's already being done. Look around at any school, even schools that don't have a reputation for success. There is undoubtedly one great teacher there, or even a cadre of them, and many others that make their success possible.

There are new schools in New York City, which I helped to create during the last four years, that are now on pace to graduate 85 percent of their students in campuses where before only 40 percent of the students graduated. There are schools in Baltimore that succeed where others fail. I'm not talking about schools that screen kids; I'm talking about schools that take neighborhood kids, of all kinds, with a high percentage of poverty.

These are schools with great leaders, with teachers that collaborate around their learning and that focus on student outcomes. These are resourceful schools, often rule-breakers. They use the resources of their community. They open doors and believe that all children can learn. These are schools that we need to emulate and replicate, because they prove that it can be done. If done by one, it can be done by all. Anyone who requires further proof is moving beyond the rational to the realm of bigotry. The children come as is, and we are responsible to respond to what they bring. It is that simple.

I was lucky enough, when I first became a teacher, to fall in with a group of people teaching those kids whom an entire system had failed - emotionally disturbed adolescents. Those people could paraphrase the words of the song: "If that soul is lost, it's nobody's fault but mine."

I gladly embrace that responsibility for the system, and know that the work will not be easy. "You are still in your honeymoon," everyone tells me. There are hard decisions ahead, figurative dragons to slay. "North Avenue!" people exclaim. It's not just about North Avenue. It's about everyone in the city coming together around a focus on student achievement, and understanding that decisions will be made for the good of children at all times.

If I'm still in a honeymoon two months from now, I've yet to begin doing my job.

Andres Alonso is CEO of the Baltimore public school system. His e-mail is

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