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.