What can we learn from the struggles of Baltimore public schools?

Dr. Andres Alonso, Baltimore City Schools CEO, has put one of the nation's worst districts on the road to success. For starters, he had to confront entrenched punitive attitudes toward kids.

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Dr. Andrés Alonso, superintendent of Baltimore City Schools

Dr. Andres Alonso, Baltimore City Schools CEO, has put one of the nation's worst districts on the road to success. For starters, he had to confront entrenched punitive attitudes toward kids.

It's been three years since Dr. Andrés Alonso took over the Baltimore City Public Schools, considered one of the worst-performing districts in the nation, and he's already becoming the stuff of legend. Yet Alonso, in town last week (Jan. 20) to speak at the Washington Policy Center's 2011 Education Breakfast, responds with smiling realism to the popular idea that his achievements in Baltimore have been Herculean.

"The baseline was remarkably low," he told his Westin hotel audience. "It's easy to pick up apples on the ground."

Indeed, when Alonso was hired as superintendent of Baltimore's largely black school district in 2007, achievement in the schools was worse than declines caused by what George W. Bush called "the soft bigotry of low expectations." It looked more like the hard bigotry of none.

Only 35 percent of Baltimore’s students received high-school diplomas the year before Alonso arrived. Proficiency levels as measured by standardized tests were in the cellar. Over nine years the district lost 25,000 students, dwindling from 106,540 in 1999 to 81,284 in 2008.

In the same period the district gained 1,000 staff, Alonso said. With costs rising despite continuing enrollment declines, "baseline aid from the state to the city had doubled.... It was clearly an organization not sustainable over time."

During the early 2000s there had been pockets of innovation that included investments by the Gates Foundation, Alonso said. These were "efforts that funders eventually pulled out of," but "breaking up large schools was one." Then in 2003, Maryland began allowing charter schools. "Charters are like Cuban restaurants," said Alonso, whose family emigrated from Cuba when he was 12. "Some you don't want to go back in there again." Still, a few new ideas had been seeded, and when Alonso arrived from New York City, where he had been deputy to schools chancellor Joel Klein, he factored them into the major steps he took in Baltimore.

A personal, passionate commitment to young people, which grew during his own early years of classroom teaching, drives Alonso’s work and gives ethical power to an administrative style that some have found uncomfortably aggressive. He said that in the weeks of conversations he held with school employees and the wider community after he was hired, he found a "huge sense of aggrievement, … everybody pointing at everybody else, especially the kids. The sense of outrage wasn't about How have we failed these kids?" but about how tough they were to teach.

Alonso said he responded to such complaints by criticizing the high rate of student suspensions the previous year — in 2006. (A Soros Institute report put that figure at 12.5 percent of Baltimore’s students; nationally, just 7 percent of students were suspended and expelled in 2006, according to the U.S. Department of Education.) "I said 'Sorry, you can't suspend the kids like that,'" and told them, "I taught classes of totally emotionally disturbed 11- and 14-year-olds." He told them he knew firsthand that there were more effective ways than suspension to correct youthful misbehavior.

However, he observed to his audience at the Westin, in the Baltimore system there was "an almost Biblical punitive culture about kids." To begin changing that culture, Alonso invited the wider community to help solve the dropout problem: "Come inside the tent and work on enrollment, on the issue of missing kids.” He persuaded several community-based organizations to “knock on doors of kids who dropped out last year."

And he said he advised the school board to "throw out [its] 40-point evaluation for their superintendent and use one: Are we keeping more kids? Everything needed to be about that conversation. Every molecule and atom in the district had to be bumping up together to do that one thing."

Still, "the kids come 'as is,'" as Alonso is fond of saying. So how could Baltimore schools change to meet the students where they were, engage them, and raise levels of academic achievement? "The work had to be about responsibility," he said. "If the conversation ever went beyond what the people in the room were going to be responsible for, it was the wrong conversation."

To give each school greater responsibility and shift resources accordingly, Alonso cut central office personnel by 34 percent. "Central office had to give up control so individual schools could respond," he said. The role of remaining central staff was redefined, from enforcing top-down compliance to providing support for the decisions made by each school.

Within the schools, the principals, who once controlled 3 percent of their budgets, were given control of 81 percent. Schools now have the authority to decide how time and money will be used as they hire and fire their own staff, tailor professional development to their needs, and develop the details of their own programs within broad state and federal parameters. In return for this autonomy, the individual schools are held accountable for student achievement. Alonso has fired three-quarters of the principals in the district.

He drove union compromises so that taking responsibility didn't mean ratcheting up personnel costs. He also closed 26 of the district’s 198 schools and opened several new ones, pushing for an array of schools with distinctive yet demanding programs, including charters, so that families would have more choices. And he led parents and other city stakeholders to define appropriate, consistent group roles for participating in district decision-making. The governing mantra for all, from superintendent and staff to students and the wider community, he said, is "no excuses."

Enrollment, graduation rates, and test scores are rising now in Baltimore, Alonso said. "I was constantly asked for the blueprint, the strategy I came in with." But "I wanted the work to emerge from the problems of the city, the opportunities of the city, and be embraced by the people who were going to implement it and were deeply embedded in those problems and opportunities."

So "there’s no playbook, and we’re not a model," said Alonso. "We are a very interesting case study for work that is deeply contextual." Part of the context in Baltimore was that 87 percent of the city's public-school students are black, in a city with a black population of only 63 percent; and 84 percent of school families are poor.

But though every district is different, Alonso said, each one can ask, "What are the two or three things you can do quickly? Then take care of the larger focus over time. Everything can’t turn on a dime, but much of the work is about maintaining a sense of moving forward." And though his schools take responsibility for results, he stressed that "there should be no people without responsibility, and no scapegoats, in the wider community."

During his visit to Washington state, Alonso met with a variety of state and local officials and appeared with former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice at the Excellent Schools Now Coalition in Olympia. Readers who want to know more about Alonso’s life and work will find articles linked to a Wikipedia entry about him.


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