A promising choice

June 14, 2007

The unanimous decision by Baltimore's Board of School Commissioners to name Andres Alonso as the next schools CEO signals a strong desire to move the system forward with a greater sense of urgency. Mr. Alonso, the top deputy for New York City schools, comes with impressive credentials and is known to be passionately focused on teaching and learning, although he is untested as the person in charge. An effective communicator, he can make his views and vision clear to those who are concerned about student success - but he will also need skills to navigate the tricky waters of state and city politics so that educational progress is not threatened or undermined.

Coming from a system with more than a million students in more than 2,000 buildings to a system of about 82,000 students in about 200 buildings, Mr. Alonso might be said to be taking up a lighter load. But though the scale may be different, the challenges are quite similar: lagging student achievement, a bureaucracy that sometimes has a mind of its own, and often inadequate or misplaced resources.

Mr. Alonso understands the importance of education as a pathway to success, and he rightly insists that schools have a responsibility to teach every child regardless of how ill-equipped to learn he or she may be.

Although unfamiliar with Baltimore, he is focused on individual classrooms and schools as the key units of reform and growth. And he is willing to push for controversial changes, including differential pay for important personnel in short supply, such as math, science and special-education teachers as well as teachers and principals who can help turn around consistently low-performing schools.

But it's also not lost on Mr. Alonso that the city's future depends, in part, on restoring faith in a school system that has been losing students in recent years and that has not been a reliable supplier of well-educated graduates who can help advance the economic and social ambitions of the city and the state. As a first measure of accountability, the new CEO wants to - and should - be judged on whether he can increase the city's dismal graduation rate.

Mr. Alonso takes charge when relations are strained between Gov. Martin O'Malley and state schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick, dating at least to her thwarted attempt to exert more control over several failing city schools last year. At the same time, the future of the state-city partnership governing the schools has come under attack in the city's mayoral race.

For now, Mr. Alonso is more concerned about the people who can help improve student achievement than about the structure of any alliance. And that is as it should be. His success will largely be measured by his ability to keep his eyes on that prize.

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