Yes we can

The Baltimore Sun

When Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso called for 500 volunteers to work in city schools after a fight broke out last year between a student and a teacher at Reginald F. Lewis High School, 700 people signed up. Mr. Alonso doubled the goal to 1,000 and met it. To boost parent involvement, Mr. Alonso ordered principals to set up councils giving parents a say in school budgets and hired 63 community organizers. These and other unmistakable signs of change in Baltimore's troubled schools are detailed in the three-part series by The Baltimore Sun's Sara Neufeld that ends today. At the center of her story is the remarkable figure of Mr. Alonso and his stubborn refusal to accept anything less than excellence from teachers, principals and administrators. He expects it and the school board has given him the leeway to achieve it his way.

Mr. Alonso is changing the prospects for city schoolchildren not only through the force of his personality - he's demanding, responsive, impatient with excuses and can rankle some of his subordinates - but he's transformed the landscape by shaking up a dysfunctional educational bureaucracy that has been failing kids for decades. In two years, he replaced a third of the system's principals, fired 200 uncertified teachers and transferred hundreds of staff out of the North Avenue headquarters, with some returning to classrooms. He also made principals accountable for managing their budgets, giving them the freedom to tailor their programs to the needs of their kids, within reason. That also imposes greater responsibilities on principals, who are the most important figure in a school's success.

Coupled with that, Mr. Alonso insisted that parents and neighborhood residents share a stake in their schools' success. The head of the Maryland PTA says it is preparing to work with 50 new parent groups - a promising development in a city in which parent participation has been low.

Mr. Alonso's hands-on approach has produced significant achievements, particularly with policies to keep kids in school by reducing the number of suspensions and ordering principals to re-enroll students who drop out. Those changes have boosted enrollment and buttressed efforts to increase student achievement as reflected in higher test scores and graduation rates across the board.

For the first time in decades, there is a palpable sense of hope that failing schools can be turned around and that merely adequate schools can become superior ones. Experts suggest that if the schools continue to register the kinds of gains they made last year, Baltimore will be on track to reach that goal within five years. Mr. Alonso has said he wants to remain on the job at least a decade.

Since his arrival, Mr. Alonso has set a new standard for achievement and shown that it can be accomplished. He enjoys the support of state school Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, city school board Chairman Brian D. Morris and Mayor Sheila Dixon. But to keep moving forward, he will need thousands of ordinary people across the city to join the effort. This is a job for the entire community.

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