Andrés Alonso made his priorities clear on day one.
It was June 13, 2007. After a top-secret, months-long search for a new CEO for the Baltimore City Schools, Alonso was being introduced to an excited overflow crowd gathered in the board room at school headquarters.
After a rousing introduction by board chair Brian Morris, the bearded, bespectacled Alonso stepped to the microphone. He looked around the room for a moment.
“Where are the kids?” he asked with a Spanish accent. “This is the last time we will have an event where there are no children, because it’s all about the children.”
The room erupted in applause, and everyone knew it would not be business as usual under Andrés Alonso.
Alonso had come from New York City, where he was a deputy chancellor in one of the largest school systems in the nation, to lift Baltimore’s public schools out of a longstanding morass of failure and inefficiency.
“His willingness to uproot and come here speaks volumes about his commitment to repairing a broken school system,” says school commissioner Bob Heck. “It’s been broken for 50 years, as are all urban systems.”
While previous school CEOs labored valiantly within the system to bring about improvements—with only marginal success—city and state leaders have high hopes for Alonso, because he’s willing to implement ruthless, system-wide reform and let the proverbial chips fall where they may.
Many had thought it couldn’t be done, but the consensus, after his first six months on the job, is that if anyone is capable of righting the ship, this is the guy.
The challenges are overwhelming: A bloated, entrenched, and costly bureaucracy; aging and inadequate facilities; unacceptable student suspension and dropout rates, too many schools failing to meet standards. And those are just the issues over which, on paper, he has some control. Equally troubling, but beyond his influence, are the intractable social ills that can make it so difficult for children to achieve—including, often, a lack of parent involvement.
This year, Alonso, who is earning $230,000 plus perks and benchmark bonuses (slightly higher than that of previous city schools CEOs but lower than Baltimore County’s schools chief), must try to meet his objectives while facing a projected $50 million budget shortfall, a huge blow in his first months on the job that is sure to test his political mettle.
In an October 31 speech to civic leaders, shortly after the state budget cut was announced, Alonso articulated his frustration with the political process.
“The question is, what is adequate funding for education? But the conversation is being framed in terms of the budget, it is not being framed in terms of what it takes to properly educate children,” he told the audience.
For school systems to operate in a context of increased standards and accountability, without discussing what it takes financially, he added, “is extremely short-sighted.”
While the pressures he faces are considerable, Alonso remains soft-spoken and composed. When he can, he uses humor to ease tensions or gently drive home a point. “He hides behind this great smile that he has, this very disarming smile,” says school board member Jim Campbell.
Alonso says his Harvard legal training helps him analyze tough problems. Of the pressure, he says, “I don’t feel it. I feel that I am prepared for everything.”
And he has been given extremely wide berth. The Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, the only body to whom he is accountable to keep his job, has effectively told Alonso to come in, make a proper assessment, and take no prisoners in implementing his solutions.
“I think the biggest challenge that a board has is to establish an organizational will that compels every person to do whatever has to be done to bring about student achievement,” says Commissioner George Van Hook Sr. “That is why we chose [Alonso]. We thought that he would come in and stir it up.”
Commissioner Heck jokingly refers to Alonso as “Bulldozer Andrés,” because of the sweeping scope of reform that’s expected from him.
“I have never been afraid of making decisions,” says Alonso. “The worst thing for a superintendent is to not make a decision, because then people just spin.”
Everyone who has worked with Alonso uses the same adjectives to describe him, putting the word “incredibly” before each one: smart, passionate, hard-working, dedicated, inspiring.
His personal story is impressive. Cuban-born, he immigrated with his family to the United States at age 12, speaking no English. More than five years later, in 1975, he entered Columbia University on full scholarship.
After that, it was Harvard Law School and a job at a law firm in the pressure cooker that is Wall Street. Within a few years, having achieved what for many immigrants is the American dream, Alonso sought a new, if far less lucrative, challenge: teaching bilingual students and emotionally disturbed students in Newark, N.J.
During that time, he became a legal guardian to one of his special-needs students, who now works as a mechanic in suburban Washington, D.C. (Alonso asked that the boy’s name be withheld.)
Alonso’s close friend, David Cantor, says Alonso cared tremendously about many of his students and became concerned for the boy, whose family was having trouble caring for him. “And when he was leaving the school, he was being released to one of the biggest and toughest high schools in Newark. Andrés was afraid that he would just get eaten up and disappear, basically. And he loved him, so he took him in,” Cantor says.
“I don’t think it was ever in his mind an act of altruism. I think it’s what you do for somebody that you love. He was doing what a parent does.”
Cantor says the decision to change careers was not an easy one for Alonso. During a 10-week European trip with Cantor in the summer of 1987, Alonso struggled with the question of whether to go into teaching.
“He had left the law, and I remember that throughout the trip he was thinking really carefully about what his next move in life would be,” says Cantor.
“He didn’t have any desire to teach kids who were really well off, in a private school. He wanted to take on the kinds of kids he recognized growing up. When we came back, within two weeks he had begun his teaching career.”
After 12 years of teaching, Alonso earned a second doctorate from Harvard through its program for urban school superintendents, then became a school system administrator in New York City and quickly rose to deputy chancellor in 2006.
Alonso was among several dozen candidates who applied for the Baltimore school CEO job, but he easily outshone his rivals.
“He knocked my socks off,” says Kalman “Buzzy” Hettleman, a school commissioner and longtime public servant. “I had never met any person in public education who was more interesting, insightful, and smart. From the first 10 minutes, it was clear that he was in a class by himself.”
Alonso keeps to a grueling schedule of meetings and school visits that has him running from approximately 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. “The pace of the job, the hours, are just unbelievable,” he says.
Fifty and single, Alonso rents a home in Otterbein, but he has barely unpacked and has little time to enjoy it. “It’s a place to have my suits,” he says.
He enjoys sports and reading fiction—Tolstoy is a favorite—but has no time for that now. “And I love movies. I’ve seen an unbelievable and probably inexcusable amount of movies in my life,” he says.
These days, Alonso spends his free time catching up on paperwork. Because he is data-driven, by his own description, he is constantly poring over documents, looking for patterns and weaknesses in the system.
Muriel Berkeley, Ph.D., president of the Baltimore Curriculum Project, says she is impressed with Alonso’s ability to look past standardized test scores and evaluate whether students are actually learning. Her organization operates five charter schools in Baltimore.
“He understands that every single student needs to be learning every single day,” Berkeley says. “If we’re doing that over time, then we will get to where we need to go.”
Says Joel Klein, chancellor of the New York City Department of Education and Alonso’s leadership mentor: “Everybody else will talk about curriculums and programs. He will talk about outcomes for kids.”
Despite his exhausting schedule, Alonso is committed to visiting five schools and attending several PTA meetings per week. It’s the best way, he says, to learn what’s really going on in the classroom.
What he finds does not surprise him.
“I did five community meetings in my first month on the job, and I must have met about 2,000 parents in those meetings. And what came across was, ‘The school system has not responded to us,’ ” Alonso says.
During school visits, which are always unannounced, Alonso assesses the quality of instruction, how expectations are presented to students, and the overall learning climate. “I want to get a sense,” he says, “‘Is this a school where I would be happy sending my children?’”
Alonso also hopes to find differentiation in the classroom, meaning some students are allowed to progress at a different pace—whether faster or slower—than the majority of the class. To his dismay, he finds little of that, even in special education classes.
He says his own experience teaching special education students helped prepare him for managing a large, urban school system.
“Their needs are symptomatic of the needs of all children,” he says. “I understood that instruction needed to be about differentiation, that the children needed to believe you were there for them, that I had to ask for excellence, and excellence can be defined in many different ways,” he says.
“I also learned that you should never give up on any child. At some point, I really felt and understood that the parents were placing them in my care. So if I ever gave up on one, then I was not doing my job. And as the head administrator of a school system, I don’t think I define my job any differently.”
School staff and observers are impressed with Alonso’s willingness to roll up his sleeves and focus on what’s happening at the individual school level.
During the weekend before school started last August, Alonso visited 24 schools to make sure the buildings were ready and that principals and teachers had what they needed, says board member Jim Campbell.
“He’s the first hands-on CEO since I can remember,” says Karen Lawrence, principal of Heritage High School and a 34-year veteran of the city schools. She says past CEOs have tended to be “executive-types who delegate. You don’t sense that they are involved in the inner workings,” she says.
Alonso is “like a breath of fresh air,” says Irma Johnson, executive director for Baltimore’s elementary/elementary middle schools. “Before, it was so much political turmoil, problems with the budget, so the focus was more on the system than on the children. Now the focus is, ‘What can we do as a system to lift up our children academically?’”
At parent meetings, Alonso is fond of saying, “You’re not sending your children to a system. You’re sending your children to a classroom.” He has been teased for giving his e-mail address to parents in public meetings. But he says he wants to hear from them and, more importantly, for them to have direct access to him.
Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation and a former member of the city and state school boards, says he believes Alonso’s accessibility and responsiveness are building him equity in the community. Embry gives him points for attending to the finer details of the job.
“He is a bachelor and he works a very long day,” says Embry.
Alonso’s former colleague, Linda Wernikoff, executive director for special education initiatives in the New York City system—about 10 times the size of Baltimore’s—says a school CEO must bypass administrative filters to obtain the unvarnished truth about what’s happening in the system.
“If people know that they can come to you, you’re really hearing voices from the field,” she says. “People are not used to that. And I think it will serve him well. It served him well here.”
In his first few months on the job, Alonso found himself in a fight with the Baltimore Teachers Union over how much time should be spent on collaborative planning with other teachers. The issue went to arbitration late last year, but not before the BTU called for Alonso’s ouster.
BTU President Marietta English says it’s “too early to tell” what kind of job Alonso is doing, but she and her membership are still upset about the way he handled the planning time issue.
“I think teachers are concerned that the new CEO, instead of coming in and looking at the situation, being friends, that he came in and picked a fight right away, as though he wasn’t willing to work with teachers,” she says.
Alonso says he has heard from hundreds of teachers about this issue, and that teachers are asking him to stick to his guns. “I have gotten nothing but tremendous support from teachers on this issue,” he says.
Last autumn, Alonso sought funding to continue a successful program of high school reform, and to develop grade 6-12 schools to address the problem of failing middle schools. He’s also eager to address the problems of attrition and suspension by developing alternative schools for troubled students.
Getting the most headlines locally and nationally in January was his proposed $1 million plan to give high school students as much as $110 each to improve their scores on state graduation exams. But perhaps his most significant reform, though not as sexy as some others, would be a move to decentralize authority from school headquarters on North Avenue to school principals. One effect of this would be a change to a per-pupil funding formula for schools, and, many central office administrators fear, restructuring and possibly downsizing at North Avenue, which critics of the school system have historically regarded as a bastion of entrenched bureaucracy whose lack of accountability and union mindset are at the root of the system’s failure.
Alonso has publicly referred to the bloated system as “a cartel.”
As to any possible restructuring, he told members of the Parent Community Advisory Board in December: “My feeling is very strong that the children are in the schools; therefore, the resources should be in the schools.”
Alonso is expected to propose the funding change when he presents his budget to the City Council within 4-6 weeks.
The idea of decentralizing authority has been generally well-received, provided that principals receive significant training and support as they assume their new responsibilities.
But some board members caution that rushing into it would be a mistake. “I think that the per-pupil funding strategy is a good strategy,” says board member VanHook. “[But] I don’t believe we are ready to move as quickly as he suggested.”
Alonso agrees that, in a perfect world, it might be better to study and prepare, but he feels a need to move ahead now. “There’s no other way to do it, as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “It’s practical, necessary, and has to happen on the move.”
Alonso is deliberate in his decision-making, colleagues say, but once he makes up his mind, he’s difficult to budge. “He can be very tough,” says board member Hettleman. “There are some people at North Avenue who are not very happy with him.”
Several colleagues in the education world say that coming in under such tremendous expectations, even someone as talented as Alonso must be given time to learn, try new things, and possibly even fail at one or two of them.
“If I have a concern it’s just that none of us have any idea how hard his job is,” says Berkeley, of the Baltimore Curriculum Project. “I hope that people will give him room to grow and make mistakes.”
Jeffery Grotsky, Ed.D., a Towson University senior researcher who was chief of staff under former schools CEO Bonnie Copeland, agrees. “It’s a tough, tough job,” he says. “The pressures that come from the mayor, the governor, the teachers union—it’s not a good job. But he’ll do fine, I’m sure. People have to give him a little breathing room.”
Observers agree that one of Alonso’s greatest challenges, in terms of being able to carry out his vision, will be finding enough talented people to help him. He has already forced the resignations of two top administrators, and some mid-level administrators have left the system as well.