The day Andrés Alonso dreaded came the Friday before Thanksgiving.
For his first year and a half as Baltimore schools chief, the system was showing unprecedented progress. Four decades of enrollment decline ended. Test scores were their best since the state started keeping track. The graduation rate? Up. Suspensions? Down.
Alonso's excitement grew with each new piece of good news, and yet he was anxious. "It can turn on a dime," he would say.
And then, there was a murder.
Markel Williams, 15, was stabbed to death by a fellow student outside William H. Lemmel Middle School. It was the first killing on city school grounds during school hours since 2001. "Parents do not send their kids to school in the morning thinking they're not coming back at night," Alonso said. "It's a violation of the covenant."
All weekend, he waited for e-mails from an angry public, calls from activists demanding change, cries from parents who didn't feel safe sending their kids to school anymore. They never came.
A poor black boy with disciplinary problems had been slain at a failing school. It was almost as though it was to be expected. "It's unbelievable," Alonso said of the lack of outrage. "It's unbelievable."
"The kids come as is," read the saying that Alonso saw in the office on his first day of teaching in Newark, N.J. It has guided his outlook as an educator ever since. To truly transform the city schools, he says, the community must believe in the possibility of transformation with the kids it has, as they are. Therein lies what is perhaps Alonso's biggest challenge: overcoming the community's acceptance that things are as they always will be.
Most of the people who held Alonso's job before him were defeated by bureaucracy and politics. He has found ways to control those things. Single-handedly, he has reshaped the organization of the school system, empowering principals and revolutionizing the way education in the city is funded.
But on his own, he can't take the streets out of the schools. On his own, he can't stop the violence. He must have troops, starting with parents and extending to the community at large.
"I have no illusions about this being easy," Alonso said hours after Markel Williams' death. "We have been on an unbelievable ride. I always knew it would end and that the job was to turn it around again."
The students at City Neighbors Charter School were sick of the frozen, prepackaged food that came to their cafeteria and other schools too small for a full kitchen. "Gross," they called it.
For months, they tried unsuccessfully to appeal to the school system's food service director. Not getting anywhere, they e-mailed Alonso. He didn't just respond to their messages; he agreed to a meeting. Then, to their astonishment, he removed the food service director from her job. In her place, he hired a chef who brings in locally grown produce and asks the kids what they want to eat.
"Dr. Alonso reacted pretty good," said Ethan Maszczenski, 13.
"He fired her! Got her out!" added classmate Alice Sheehan, 12. "We had to e-mail Dr. Alonso four times or something, but, well, he's busy. He's the superintendent of Baltimore City. But he answered!"
It's a long way from improving bad food to tackling school violence, but Alonso sees a connection. If he takes seriously intensely localized but deeply irksome matters, his strategy goes, he'll earn the credibility to ask for help in dealing with systemic problems he can't address alone. "It's about creating the sense that the school system can improve," he said.
In fall 2007, the advocacy group Baltimoreans United In Leadership Development angrily presented Alonso with a list of building deficiencies in the dozen schools where it runs after-school programs.
Heat wasn't working at eight of them. Westport Academy had fist-size holes in a hallway wall where drywall was crumbling. In the office, people tripped over a bump in the floor. In a classroom, the floor was caving in. Nina Teresi, a fifth-grade reading teacher, said she didn't expect to see any improvement. "You kind of get used to it," she said.
Alonso put his staff to work and spent $2.6 million on repairs to the schools.
The strategy has limits. Baltimore's school buildings have hundreds of millions of dollars of maintenance needs. If parents at every school asked for repairs, there wouldn't be enough money to go around. Still, Alonso reaches out.
During his first year on the job, he attended more than 120 PTA meetings and other parent gatherings. Getting parents involved is a challenge in cities beset by poverty. In addition to the social problems such as drug addiction and incarceration, many parents had negative experiences in school themselves and don't know how to navigate the bureaucracy on behalf of their children.
Alonso had to start mobilizing from scratch in some places. At one high school PTA meeting last spring, two parents showed up - along with a rat that scurried across the room.
When people did turn out and tell Alonso what they wanted, he was determined to deliver. Over and over, he heard from parents of older elementary students who were desperate for some decent options for middle school. He devised a plan to open two dozen combined middle/high schools ("transformation schools," he dubbed them) over four years, some preparing kids for college, others for the work force.
Few schools in the country place middle and high school students under one roof, and little research exists to support the concept. Alonso didn't care.
Within a few months, he had secured $4.4 million in philanthropic donations, solicited applications from outside groups to run the new schools, and gotten school board approval to open the first six in August 2008. The board has since approved applications for six more to open this year.
Levonne St. Claire read about one of the new choices, the Baltimore Civitas School, in a newsletter put out by the Johns Hopkins University, which is helping to operate the middle/high school. After speaking with the principal, she moved from Woodlawn to West Baltimore to send her daughter to Civitas instead of one of Baltimore County's lowest-performing middle schools. "I never would've thought I would've been moving back into the city to accommodate my child," St. Claire said. "I'm very surprised that I'm as happy as I am."
Borrowing a concept from New York City, Alonso decided to give parents, teachers and students input into principal evaluations. Their responses to school climate surveys will be used in the evaluations starting this year. Alonso is also mandating that parents get formal input into school budgets. At 63 schools, the system has hired community organizers to boost parent involvement.
"This is the first time I can tell you in many, many years that I felt I was part of my child's education," said Pat Mohamad, who has been involved in city schools for more than 20 years, first for her daughter and now her grandchildren. Before, she said, "you asked about the budget, and no one said a thing to you about it. Now it's broken down so even I can understand it. He just opened things up for parents and made us feel a part of everything."
Once he established his credibility with families, Alonso could start asking for their help.
Last April, after a cell phone video of a student fighting a teacher at Reginald Lewis High School made national news, Alonso issued a public call for 500 people to sign up to volunteer in city schools. Some scoffed at the idea, but within a month, more than 700 people had signed up. Alonso doubled his goal to 1,000 and met it.
BUILD, the advocacy group that got the repairs it sought, became an important ally. Last year, Alonso and school board Chairman Brian Morris were so inconspicuous when they went to Annapolis to lobby against state funding cuts to education that they were nearly shut out of a crowded hearing room. This year, during the first week of the General Assembly's session, Alonso was invited to speak at a rally organized by BUILD that drew 400 people from around the state.
On the frigid January evening, Alonso recounted to the crowd how well public schools had worked for him after he immigrated to New Jersey from Cuba at age 12. As he went through his life, he said, he's asked himself over and over, "What is it about this country and what is it about the manifestation of the American dream that has meant that for so many students - for so many students - it hasn't worked like it worked for me?"
From street to school
Alonso thought he'd seen it all in Newark, where he was a special education teacher for a dozen years. Just wait, people told him when he first got to Baltimore, until the weather gets warm.
After the video of the Reginald Lewis fight surfaced, he conceded: The violence in Newark can't compare with what happens in Baltimore in the heat.
Amid the frenzy that ensued, Alonso started to feel beaten down. He went that Saturday to the system's early childhood fair, where parents were registering their children for pre-kindergarten and kids were getting immunizations and playing games. He stayed for nearly two and a half hours, stopping at every table and posing for pictures with families and school staff.
"It reminded me of why I came here, and what I said in my first day - I was here to love the kids," he said that afternoon. "And I fundamentally think that the reason there is violence is as much about people not loving the kids as about lack of capacity or the spillover from the outside."
As April wore on, violence outside of schools severely disrupted the learning process. Within three days, a student from Booker T. Washington Middle was found murdered in an apartment, a police officer was shot near Alexander Hamilton Elementary, and a student from Frederick Douglass High was shot in the face in the same neighborhood. On four days, five schools had to keep kids locked in their classrooms.
Alonso attended a PTA meeting that week at one of the city's top-performing schools, Mount Royal Elementary/Middle. Children sang and danced for him, performing to the Gloria Estefan song "Morenita" as a nod to his Cuban heritage, and he gave them multiple standing ovations. Still, smiles and laughter didn't flow as easily for him that night as they normally do when he's around parents and kids.
During the question-and-answer part of the meeting, an elderly woman approached the microphone.
"I'm not only a grandmother, but I'm a great-grandmother," she said. "My first question is, what is the school system planning to do about the gangs in schools?"
Before she could get the next question out, Alonso interrupted.
"How is it the responsibility of the school system to deal with gangs?" he snapped. "Gangs are not in the schools. Gangs are being formed on the outside."
"They're in the schools," the great-grandmother said.
"I know, and we have a responsibility," he shot back. His next few sentences were disjointed as he tried to regain his composure.
"We're missing the fact that it is a community conversation," he said. "What are the parents doing?"
The audience clapped. He continued: "What are the students doing? What is everyone doing? It is so unfair to the professionals in the school to say, 'What are you doing about gangs?' Let me tell you what we're doing about gangs, now, let me tell you." He went on with a list, including gang awareness programs and more school police.
"The reason I'm responding with such passion," he said, "is because there's no way for me to predict whether one of my kids is going to get shot two blocks away from school in a gang-related incident. And, and, for anyone to suggest that this is the responsibility of the school system is a form of madness."
The next day, a student at Lemmel Middle School stabbed a classmate with scissors. The injuries were minor, but Alonso braced himself for another media onslaught, canceling a scheduled appearance at another PTA meeting. It did not come, and he had his first night off in a month.
Seven months later, Lemmel was the scene of a second stabbing. This time the weapon was a knife, and this time the injuries to the victim, Markel Williams, were fatal. Once again, Alonso braced himself for a backlash. Once again, there wasn't one.
In the days following Markel's death, Alonso received an e-mail that caught his attention. It was from a teacher at another school, Homeland Security Academy, saying it was descending into chaos after the principal's removal. The teacher feared that another child would be killed. Alonso sent a horde of central office administrators, hall monitors and mentors to restore order.
Senior Larry Jackson, 17, said that "helped a whole lot" to reduce the number of fights but that it would take a lot more to make Homeland Security a good school. "In the last four years, we had five principals," he said. "Teachers come and go every year, so they don't get a chance to know the students as much as they should."
Classmate Jerron Wallace, 18, agreed: "I think everyone thinks the school has potential, but the way it is now, it's not gonna be any time soon."
That's unacceptable to Alonso. A few weeks ago, he gave all underclassmen the option of transferring to another school midyear. He's proposed that the school board close Homeland Security this summer.
Laura Weeldreyer, Alonso's deputy chief of staff, says her boss "actually has the gall to believe that we can be great" despite social ills that spill into the schools. "Do the rest of us believe that?" she asked.
Alonso is asking the public to suspend its cynicism. "Cynicism weakens the soul," he likes to say. Every so often, he sees the cynicism lifting in Baltimore, and it gives him hope.
Last spring, Alonso's plan to open a new middle/high school in a middle school building scheduled to close outraged neighbors in Canton, who complained that the closing school's students had assaulted and harassed them. They didn't want any school in the building.
Alonso was furious. At a meeting with parents at the nonprofit Baltimore Education Network, he railed against the community's opposition in a 23-minute, table-pounding tirade. He demanded that the parents help him fight for the new school, Friendship Academy of Science and Technology.
"What's been discussed out there," he said, "is this notion that you cannot have a good school with these kids" - his voice was rising - "these kids who don't belong in some neighborhoods."
In time, a city councilman's threat to hold up the school system's budget over the situation passed, and the school opened.
By late fall, students could no longer roam the halls during class time. The library, which had been used as a storage closet, was functioning again. Students reported that there were no more food fights in the cafeteria, and the lessons were more challenging.
"We're actually learning something," said Celeste Barrientos, 13, an eighth-grader who attended the school when it was Canton Middle. "We're actually reading books."
On Nov. 11, community members joined with students to plant trees in the neighborhood. The next day, Susan Colligan, a resident who had complained in the spring that the new school might hurt property values, sent an e-mail to the principal. "The community welcomes you, your staff and the students," she wrote. "We appreciate the improvement in the school's appearance and the attitude and demeanor of the students. This year we are seeing a clean school, and we see beautiful students come in and look so ready to learn."
A week and a half later, when he had to confront the worst possible news, Alonso had that victory to hold on to. In one small corner of the city, the kids came as is, and they rose to the challenge.
"It's doable," Alonso said.
about the series
Education reporter Sara Neufeld spent hundreds of hours interviewing Andrés Alonso, attending public meetings where he was present, and accompanying him on visits to schools and events after he was named CEO of the Baltimore schools in June 2007. She observed most of the scenes in this series that took place in Baltimore; others were reconstructed based on interviews with him and his relatives, friends, and current and former colleagues.
•Sunday: A journey from the Cuban countryside to Newark, N.J., stirs a young man's passion for improving children's lives.
•Yesterday: A new schools chief shakes up the bureaucracy with flair, making both believers and enemies.
•A video of Alonso attending a rally in Annapolis for school funding
•A video of Alonso responding to a teacher's concerns
•More videos of Alonso, more photos and previous stories
excerpts from alonso's online chat
Baltimore City schools CEO Andrés Alonso responded to questions yesterday in an online chat at baltimoresun.com/InsideEd
Question from RJ: Dr. Alonso, What are you going to do about making the children partially responsible for their own education. My husband is a teacher at one of the BCPSS middle schools who is threatened, attacked and disrespected every single day. When he sends the offending child to the office the child is immediately returned to the room with no consequences.
Alonso: It's not about what I'm going to do, it's about what we're all going to do. Clearly we all need to become better at our job and that involves having principals who are better at managing discipline and engagement at the school level. It involves teachers who are better at engendering respect and engagement in the classroom. And it involves parents who are going to work with us rather than against us to make sure that children come to school ready to learn. ...
Question from Joe M: Dr. Alonso, I'm a twenty-something living in Mt. Vernon with no kids. What can people that are similar to my age and situation do to help Baltimore City schools?
Alonso: How about having kids and sending them to our schools? Pronto?! Seriously, mentor, tutor, write letters to the governor, stand up for our kids.
Question from John I: Have you seen the Wire Season 4, which covers the schools? If so do you have any comments about it's accuracy, or how you are dealing with some of the issues it raised?
Alonso: No! I refused to watch! I didn't want to prejudge the city and the schools. Having spent a decade in Newark, I didn't need a scriptwriter to tell me what teaching in an inner city school was all about. And I've been too busy since I got here. I started watching season one, and couldn't get past the first three episodes.
For the complete transcript, go to baltimoresun.com/InsideEd