Pushing hard, with no excuses

Baltimore Sun

Top administrators in the Baltimore City school system were used to staff meetings with fluid agendas that left time for all to speak.

But now, Andrés Alonso was presiding. And class was in session.

When I send you an e-mail, the schools' new chief executive told them on that summer day in 2007, I expect a reply within 20 minutes. Twenty-four hours a day. Seven days a week.

This wasn't a conversation, but more like a lecture, one in which students keep quiet for fear of being admonished for falling behind on their homework. This was the way it was going to be.

Before Alonso agreed to leave New York City, where he was deputy schools chancellor, he insisted that the Baltimore school board give him the power to run the system as he sees fit. He arrived with a mission to bring a culture of high achievement to a system where historically only about half the students have graduated.

To succeed in a job that had defeated so many others, Alonso knew he would have to create some discomfort among the people working for him. Making decisions in the best interests of children, as he pledged, would require adults to operate differently. In short order, he began cutting staff at the mammoth North Avenue headquarters to send more people and money to the schools.

"It takes extreme leaps to get a system like this to take small steps," Alonso said. "My work here has been all about extreme leaps."

He made clear to senior staff that, to keep their jobs, they would have to work harder and faster. He would tolerate no excuses, no passing the blame for failure. He didn't want to hear grumbling that he was asking them to take on too much responsibility, to do things no one demanded from them before.

He didn't really mean that they couldn't go to church or a movie without checking their BlackBerrys, but he didn't mind planting the thought.

"Part of his style is to take very extreme stances to move us just a little bit," said Laura Weeldreyer, who was the head of charter schools and later promoted to be Alonso's deputy chief of staff. "You want me to be available 24 hours a day? Really? No, 14 hours a day, but doesn't that sound reasonable?"

Weeldreyer thought it did. "Parents and kids don't think we're going too fast," she said. "None of them are like, 'Whoa, I'm really worried about those bureaucrats at central office. I really think they're working too hard.'"

Looking for answersNavigating the maze he inherited, Alonso found one thing after another that defied common sense. For example, why was the system spending more to eradicate lead from school drinking fountains than it would cost to bring in bottled water?

That was easy to fix. Other problems were more deeply entrenched.

Each year, thousands of students were suspended for talking back, truancy and other nonviolent offenses, essentially giving them a vacation without meaningful consequences. At the same time, schools weren't removing violent students for fear of receiving the embarrassing label of "persistently dangerous" from the state.

In the nine years before Alonso arrived in Baltimore, the system lost 25,000 students and gained more than 1,000 employees. So why was he hearing so many complaints about excessive class size? What was everyone doing?

At times, Alonso felt, the only way to get answers was to find them himself. "I just have to grab the bull by the horn sometimes," he said. "I can't afford for someone else to play matador."

He started showing up at schools, often unannounced, at all hours. His first summer, he'd start his days checking out the exteriors of school buildings before dawn. He often spent the evening attending a PTA meeting. Within a year, he made it to more than 150 of the system's 192 schools.

One day last spring, he dropped in unannounced at an elementary/middle school where teachers were quitting midyear.

He strolled into the office and signed the visitor log. A nervous assistant principal showed him to a room where, on a chalkboard, nine students' names were written along with "defiance," "disrespect," "insubordination" and "violation of school rules." The principal left a meeting with the parent of a child returning from suspension to join them.

Alonso had been invited to the school's arts night, so he started his questioning on that topic. The principal told him about the full-time art teacher, the two full-time and one part-time classroom music teachers, the instrumental music teacher, the band teacher. "My God," Alonso blurted out, "how many people do you have doing the arts in your school?"


Not that he didn't support arts education, but how was this an effective use of resources? The principal was complaining that she didn't have the money to hire teachers in all the basic middle school subjects.

Alonso pointed out that she was due to receive an $800,000 budget increase.

During a tour, Alonso saw dirty hallways, young children lined up in the hall with no teacher, girls pushing each other into the bathroom on their way to lunch. He learned that the eighth-grade classes were on "lockdown" - the teachers were going to them rather than students switching classes - because of chronic bad behavior.

At last, in a science room, he saw the kind of instruction he sought, with children excitedly discussing the Big Bang theory. But these were gifted children, segregated from the rest of their peers.

Suddenly, sirens went off. A student had pulled the fire alarm, and the building had to be evacuated.

No more excusesExcuses. Everywhere Alonso went, he heard excuses for why students weren't achieving. "It's North Avenue's fault. It's the parents' fault. It's the children's fault," he said at a school board meeting in March, characteristically hunched over a microphone. "And the one consistent thing since I came into Baltimore City ... is that far too much, what I hear is that it is somebody's fault."

Some of it was from principals, blaming the bureaucracy for being slow, incompetent, cheap.

As a special education teacher in Newark, N.J., Alonso saw what a talented principal could do with the power to take matters into her own hands. As a Ph.D candidate at Harvard University, Alonso concluded that successful school districts allow principals to make decisions based on local needs.

Now, it was time to put those observations to use.

To begin eradicating the culture of excuses, Alonso took a radical step. We'll give you the money to run your schools, he told principals. You have to decide what to do with it and be accountable for the results.

Baltimore schools had tried decentralizing before, most recently in the 1990s. Alonso says it failed because the central office neglected its duty to support principals and hold them accountable.

Executing his plan meant moving huge amounts of people and money out of North Avenue and into the schools. Money was provided based on the number and type of students at each school, rather than the programs that existed there.

At Holabird Elementary, a tiny east-side school near the Baltimore County line, the redistribution required Principal Lindsay Krey to cut six positions, a third of her staff. The school had improved during Krey's first year as principal, and with the reductions she worried that progress would stall.

In May, Krey committed during an appearance on WYPR-FM's Maryland Morning to enroll another 50 children in the school of 160, to make up for the money she was losing. Back at Holabird, employees wondered how they could possibly deliver. "I was like, 'Well, it came out of my mouth, so here we go,'" Krey said later in an interview. "It really lit a fire under us."

All summer, she and her teachers, parents and students knocked on doors, talking up Holabird to families who were not used to being courted. Some were sneaking their kids into county schools. Others were choosing magnet and private schools. After the visits, more of them chose Holabird, where enrollment surpassed 220.

That was Alonso's intent. "I challenged them, as in, 'You have a good thing going. People want good schools. If they know you have a good school, you won't have to worry,'" he said. "They did exactly what I wanted. They took it seriously."

In the fall, Krey got her award: a budget increase.

Some principals, though, found their new responsibilities overwhelming. They were now in charge of figuring out how many teachers they could afford to hire and how many books they could afford to order. While overseeing instruction and managing the building, "you're trying to figure out how much toilet tissue to buy," said Phoebe Shorter, who retired last summer as principal of Franklin Square Elementary.

In addition to the budget duties, high school principals have to get hundreds of seniors to pass new state graduation exams this year. When the state school board weighed whether to postpone the requirement, Alonso testified passionately in favor of keeping it. He didn't want to let up the pressure.

On top of that, he added yet another challenge. Between last January and September, 925 city students dropped out of high school. Alonso's order to principals: Get them back. After a flurry of phone calls, home visits and re-enrollment fairs, more than 200 returned. That left principals to figure out what to do with students who in some cases are much older than their peers and tough to control.

Hearing complaints, Alonso had no sympathy. To him, the mentality that the students are too disruptive, too difficult to work with, is what led to them dropping out in the first place.

"On this I will take no prisoners," he said. "So they're difficult. As opposed to what?"

Encountering resistanceHistorically, the Baltimore school system offered employment opportunities to African-Americans blocked by racism from jobs in private industry.

Over time, however, that led to a system in which patronage and loyalty sometimes helped determine promotions and in which people became wary of outsiders, particularly those who weren't black. When Alonso arrived, his office was decorated in peachy pink and light green: the sorority colors of Alice Pinderhughes, the system's first African-American female superintendent, who had been gone for 20 years.

One of Pinderhughes' proteges was Charlene Cooper Boston, the acting CEO whom the school board passed over for the permanent job in favor of Alonso. To Jimmy Gittings, longtime president of the administrators union and son of Baltimore's first black assistant superintendent, it was a "cold slap in the face" to a woman who had dedicated her career to the city schools.

Gittings soon became a leading critic of the additional responsibilities that Alonso put on principals, many of whom he says won't speak up for fear of being fired. He and Alonso had several heated exchanges in public, with Gittings accusing Alonso of setting principals up for failure.

In August, Alonso converted an annual back-to-school seminar for administrators from a largely ceremonial event into a work day. There was no room for Gittings' customary welcome speech. He perceived it as a snub.

"The reason morale is low is because of the way in which individuals are talked to; there's not a friendly relationship," he said. The system used to treat its employees like family, he said, and "it is no longer that way. Maybe it shouldn't be, but in the 37 years that I've been in this system, every time you bring a CEO in from outside of the system, that CEO's job is to cut heads off and get rid of people."

Gittings wasn't the only union leader to clash with Alonso. The CEO insisted in his first contract negotiations that principals be able to require teachers to spend 45 minutes a week together planning lessons or reviewing student performance. Three months into his tenure, the teachers union called for his ouster. The union didn't oppose the idea of collaboration but was angry that teachers were being asked to do more work for the same pay. Alonso largely prevailed in arbitration, and for the most part, he and the union leaders have gotten along ever since.

Alonso has gone out of his way to get to know politicians in the city, taking the advice of the superintendent who mentored him while he was studying for his doctorate at Harvard. But part of his understanding when he took the job was that he'd report to the school board, and no one else.

That led to an incident one morning last winter in which Mayor Sheila Dixon denounced Alonso's decision to pay students struggling to pass the state graduation exams if they attended extra tutoring and improved their performance. She had read about it in the newspaper.

Dixon spoke with Alonso later that day and by the afternoon came out in support of his action. She said she hadn't realized the pay was just one component of a plan to help struggling students. She said she told Alonso that "he needs to keep me briefed," and from then on, he has. Along with Gov. Martin O'Malley, Dixon does, after all, appoint the nine-member school board.

"The reason most urban superintendents don't last a particularly long time is because of the politics," said Michelle Rhee, the District of Columbia schools chancellor, whom Alonso consulted before taking the job in Baltimore. "What is going to determine Andrés' longevity in the job is the extent to which the board and the business and philanthropy community continue to support him so he's freed up to do the work he's doing."

Alonso enjoys the support of state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, who had a hostile relationship with his predecessor, Bonnie Copeland, and tried to take over 11 failing schools. "In the years I've worked here, he's really the first person who's willing to say, 'What we've been doing is unacceptable,'" Grasmick said. "There's been a lot of rationalizing in the past, and I don't think he's into rationalizing."

Alonso says the hardest part of his job has been learning to work with a school board, something he didn't have to do in New York. Board Chairman Brian Morris pushed for Alonso's hiring and helps deliver the votes he needs to get initiatives passed. But Morris will have to leave this summer because of term limits, and Alonso's test after that will be to maintain the backing of at least five other board members.

During Alonso's first interview with the board, Morris said, he showed that "he can walk into a room with people that don't know him and don't know where he stands and within the first few minutes disarm many of their doubts and present himself as a credible, compassionate educator who is ... one of the smartest people in the room without flaunting it in your face."

He said that's what Alonso needs to keep doing.

"If you have the right people around the table who recognize that their service on the board is not about them but about the children," Morris said, "then I think he'll do fine."

Goal of irrelevanceA year and a half into Alonso's tenure, the changes in the school bureaucracy are profound. Nearly a third of the city's principals have been replaced. More than 200 teachers who had worked for years without full certification were let go; another 250 just got warning letters. More than 300 of 1,500 jobs at North Avenue were eliminated, and some of those affected were transferred into more demanding jobs in schools for less money. Another 150 central office jobs are on the chopping block this year.

This month, Alonso is trying to fend off state budget cuts that he says would be devastating. But even if he can't do that, he says his expectations will not change.

While he hasn't really demanded 24-7 duty, he was serious about employees checking e-mail on weekends and vacations. Last spring, he sent a principal recovering from a stroke a message on a Sunday night with a 60-page draft budget document attached and a request for feedback by the next day. He didn't know of the principal's ailment, but he later said it wouldn't have mattered if he had.

As for the principal, he was honored that Alonso wanted his feedback.

Many who work for Alonso are afraid of him, and he knows it. He said he tries to communicate gratitude to his employees because "I do think that people feel vulnerable when they're with me." But when their work doesn't meet his expectations, he says so.

"I have too much respect for people to give them anything other than my best," he said. "If they give me something less than what I think the kids of Baltimore deserve, I let them know. For some people, it's devastating because they've never been in a culture where that's happened."

Susan Tibbels, principal of New Song Academy in Sandtown, marvels that she can e-mail Alonso about a problem, as she did when a teacher's hiring was held up in human resources, and he not only answers right away but gets the problem fixed.

Previous CEOs, she said, were "so much like Oz ... that the idea of even asking to speak to them would seem irrational."

Still, she added, "You can't run to the CEO every time something doesn't work."

Tibbels is enthusiastic about Alonso's plans for change but said he needs the right people to carry them out. She has been having trouble getting bills paid and supplies ordered by the central office, even though she has the money in her school budget and has submitted the necessary paperwork.

"I see it as the reverse of the old adage, the calm before the storm," Tibbels said. "It's the storm before the calm."

Within a decade, Alonso says, his goal is "to be irrelevant," to have the system humming on its own. But for as long as he's in charge, he will do some things himself. He will interview every finalist for a principal's job. For now, at least, he will review all information released by North Avenue.

Once, a reporter asked him and a staff member for the same statistic and got two different answers. "You just got a front seat to my ongoing frustration," he replied in an e-mail. "It's not my job to know more details than the people whose job it is."

In other areas, he's starting to loosen the reins. On the day before Thanksgiving, he went ahead with plans to leave for New Jersey - where he spends his rare time off visiting his family and catching up on sleep - even though there had been a near-riot the day before at Forest Park High School. He asked a handful of senior administrators to take control.

"I never would've left a year ago," he said.

Among the survivors under Alonso is Benjamin Feldman, the research and testing director and a 33-year system veteran.

On a recent day, Feldman had been awake since 4 a.m. and done an hour and a half of budget analysis before getting out of bed. He said it had been years since anyone was so interested in what he does, and it feels good to know Alonso finds his work useful - even if he does rip it apart.

"I have a feeling if Jesus brought him the Lord's Prayer, he would've had edits," Feldman said.

He said some people in the system "just don't get it. They've never taken a class this challenging."

"You know what would be really heartbreaking?" Feldman asked. "If he failed. If he can't do it, no one will ever do it. We will never have a superintendent of this caliber again."

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