Big Fish Q&A with Andres Alonso, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools

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At the outset of the past decade, Baltimore City changed its public schools superintendent with alarming frequency – a dizzying parade of six different bosses in six years. Given the dispiriting prevailing academic circumstances, few relished the job: a less than 50 percent graduation rate, a decades-long slide in enrollment, and appallingly low test scores compared to the national average.

In the summer of 2007, yet another new Baltimore City Public Schools CEO, Andrés A. Alonso, plunged into this apparent cauldron of failure. “We were just about as low as we could be,” Mary Pat Clarke, who chairs the City Council’s education committee, told The New York Times in December 2010. “He blew into town with a suitcase full of ideas. Now the school system’s in motion.”

Alonso set about implementing an ambitious reform program, dramatically altering the school system’s size, structure, and sensibility. In the past five years, he has shuttered underperforming schools; dismissed approximately 75 percent of the system’s principals; eliminated central office personnel by a third; established individual school autonomy by shifting central-office resources and decision-making to principals; introduced critical reviews of teachers based on their students’ achievement; and hired monitors to oversee state assessment testing in an effort to prevent cheating.

His top-to-bottom overhaul has resulted in soaring enrollment, increased graduation, decreased dropouts, and significantly improved test scores.

Still, problems — both perceived and real — vex Alonso’s vision for change. In recent months, The Baltimore Sun has revealed a school system that has allocated scarce financial resources to non-classroom-specific purposes: notably, $65 million to personnel for unused leave over five years; $14 million in overtime pay since 2009, including $78,000 last year alone for Alonso’s driver/security escort; and $500,000 for posh office renovations at BCPS’ North Ave. HQ.

Additionally, Alonso’s innovative initiative to leverage funds to address city schools’ crumbling infrastructure (a scheme borrowed from a South Carolina school district) never came up for a vote during the recent General Assembly session – tabled, instead, for further study until next year.

In toto, not so much a reversal of fortune for Alonso, who continues to be held in high esteem, as a stark reminder of the inherent ungovernableness of the school system’s vast bureaucracy and the sometimes glacial pace of action in the state legislature.

Born in a rural town in Cuba’s Matanzas province, Alonso, 12 years old at the time, relocated with his family to Union City, N.J., in 1969. Speaking no English upon his arrival, he nonetheless thrived in the city’s public school system, and then went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in history and English from Columbia University in 1979. Three years later, he obtained a law degree from Harvard University, and from 1982 to 1984 practiced corporate law on Wall Street. Abruptly switching gears, Alonso moved into education, teaching special-needs and English-as-a-Second-Language students in Newark, N.J., from 1986 to 1998.

He earned a master’s in education from Harvard in 1999, and then entered the university’s Urban Superintendents Program, ultimately receiving a PhD in education from Harvard in 2006. Simultaneously, he worked as chief of staff for teaching and learning in New York City’s Department of Education from 2003 to 2006, before ascending to deputy chancellor for teaching and learning, a post he held from July 2006 to July 2007, when he became CEO of Baltimore’s public schools.

Now 54 and single, Alonso lives in Fells Point. He has an adopted adult son, Joel, plus two step grandchildren, 5-year-old Joseph and 7-year-old Laura.

Sum up your life philosophy in one sentence.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                               Be kind.

When did you define your most important goals, and what are they?

My goals have changed over the years. My approach has been to focus on my immediate interests and apply myself wholeheartedly to them, while always being on the lookout for new challenges.

What is the best advice you ever got that you followed?

Tennis looks like a great game. How about getting a racket and giving it a try?

The worst advice, and did you follow it? Or how did you muffle it?

You should stay in the law and make it a career.

What are the three most surprising truths you’ve discovered in your lifetime?

1) The mind is a tricky mirror.

2) Air conditioning is the world’s greatest invention.

3) Still looking for the third one.

What is the best moment of the day?

Once I am awake, every moment is potentially great. My daily goal is to make them that way.

What is on your bedside table?

My BlackBerry, [the book] A Feast for Crows [by George R.R. Martin], and a picture of my son’s kids.

What is your favorite local charity?

Locally, the Combined Charities Campaign. Elsewhere, my parents’ church in Union City, N.J. — St. Augustine’s.

What advice would you give a young person who aspires to do what you are doing?

Work hard, care deeply, get along with others, be principled, and do not compromise on your principles.

Why are you successful?

A certain amount of natural ability, a lot of hard work, a nurturing family, and lots of people who put up with me.

Cite the most conspicuous problem currently confronting Baltimore City schools. How are you and your staff attempting to solve that issue?

I don’t think there is such a thing as a problem in isolation. What we often consider problems are symptoms or manifestations of underlying things that often go back decades, or that extend to things such as housing or health or years of neglect in evaluating people. And the question for me has always been: What accounts for that, and for the fact that many of the problems we confront are similar to those that other poor urban areas also confront?

The biggest problem we have is one of expectations. What should children know and be able to do? What should adults be able to do as well? It’s been incredibly hard to push the conversation toward those fundamental questions. Everyone is blaming something else – testing and accountability, poverty, unions — depending on their side of the political debate about education.

We have made some strides, but communicating to everyone how wide the gap is between what we practice and where we need to take our kids is still our most conspicuous problem. People tend to focus on other things – whether it is the condition of the schools or problems of climate and safety – but this gap is the thing that most frustrates me.

What have been the primary benefits of the 2001 No Child Left Behind legislation for public education? What have been its most significant shortcomings? Should it be tweaked, scrapped, left untouched?

The primary benefit has been the attention to every child. When I started teaching, I taught students with disabilities. Those students did not show up in aggregate test scores, and they were neglected and pushed to corners in buildings. NCLB changed all that. The expectation became “every child must learn.” And that has been a very good thing for many students across the nation.

Even here in Maryland, if you look at outcomes for students with disabilities, you see an enormous growth in the number of them passing high school assessments. That has been about expectations and access to high-value instruction. That would not have happened without NCLB.

The act, however, has enormous shortcomings, from its blunt banking on accountability at a time when the accountability systems across the nation were rudimentary, to its focus on sanctions without balancing that focus with attention to best practices, to its agnosticism about the content of instruction. But a lot of the perceived shortcomings are about how states and districts have responded, not about the act itself. The shift to the common core in the past couple of years is in many ways a response to the shortcomings of the act.

I do not see how NCLB can remain untouched, and I don’t see how it gets scrapped, but it’s going to take more than tweaking. Perhaps that is why it has been allowed to survive for several years now, unauthorized.

Recently, criticism of Child Left Behind Act has increased, much of it coming from state schools officials across the nation. Has the legislation significantly improved the education of Baltimore City Public Schools students, or has it, as critics contend, merely resulted in an overemphasis on test preparation at the expense of actual learning?

Some of the criticism has been unfair. Far too often, people have blamed NCLB for reactions to its mandates that were completely in the hands of the local implementers. Let’s take the focus on testing, for example. Nothing in NCLB says that schools must concentrate on the two tested subjects, or that the best way to improve test scores is to sacrifice deep instruction for test preparation. And yet that is what we see everywhere, with the poorer the kid, the greater the likelihood that there is a restricted notion of what learning should be. And while people have blamed NCLB, the blame has to do with everyone who has tried to cut corners in the hard process of educating a group of children.

In Baltimore, the implementation of NCLB coincided with changes in school funding that make it hard to disentangle what led to what. If you look at our data, there should be no doubt whatsoever that our outcomes have significantly improved over time, and anyone that says “at the expense of actual learning” is living in some dream world about the past. They are not paying attention to what those outcomes were in 2002 and 2003, when only a handful of students were meeting fundamentally low standards. Where was that actual learning?

With NCLB, there was an enormous push to show evidence of progress. And while the progress still falls far, far short of where we need to be, it has been real. But you can’t say that NCLB accounted for the progress when school funding increased by almost $300 million base-lined in our budgets in state aid over six years, when class size shrunk as a result, when early childhood programs expanded tremendously, when choice and new, creative schools became the norm in the district, etc.

So for me, it has never been about NCLB. It’s been about levers that potentially lift us toward that plane of actual learning that the critics of the act yearn for. And if we think that our work depends on the external framework of a federal act, we are abdicating our responsibility to shape our future.

Where do you go in Baltimore to sate a yearning for Cuban culture, food, and music? Does such a place exist? If not here, then where: your home or those of friends?

I don’t look for Cuba in any one place. Cuba is in my soul, and in family and friends from 40 and 50 years ago that are still part of my life.



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