The city's moms and dads can swoon over

A CEO

June 15, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Perhaps we'll look back someday, while we're eating the Haagen-Dazs right out of the carton and drunk-dialing him at midnight, and wonder what went wrong. "He was perfect. He had three Harvard degrees," we'll wail to our girlfriends. "And he said he would love our children."

But for now, we might as well enjoy our June swoon over the new guy, Andres Alonso. Let's just put aside for the moment that he's now Baltimore's sixth CEO for the public schools in 10 years. Let's just imagine he could be the one who makes us forget all the others. Their promises. Their failure to deliver. Their inevitable departures.

In the two days since he was named, Alonso has been making the rounds, introducing himself to the city whose school system he will try to reform. In a softly accented voice, he's been murmuring sweet somethings into our collective ear, quoting the wisdom of the Masai in one breath, the philosophy of a Spanish poet in another. His Ivy-bedecked resume is proving as dazzling as his immigrant-striving personal bio is compelling.

In short, this is someone -- a Cuban immigrant who arrived at 12 speaking almost no English, a Columbia-Harvard Law-Harvard Ed grad, a lawyer-turned-teacher-turned-deputy-New York-chancellor -- you could take home to Mom. Or rather, the moms, dads and other guardians of Baltimore's 83,000 public school students.

At the risk of assuming we can look into a person's heart -- you see where that got President Bush with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin -- Alonso's seems to be in the right place. At least he wears his on his sleeve.

"I am here to love your children," he declared the other day, speaking at the district's North Avenue headquarters. "Teach them, love the parents, watch them carefully, do whatever it takes to make them succeed."

This is how the guy talks, which may only be remarkable in contrast to the usual acronym-laden educationspeak that you tend to hear from administrators. But what quickly has become apparent about Alonso is that he has reached the top in his field without being entirely of it. Alonso has been a teacher (of special ed in Newark) but not a principal. He has supervised superintendents (in New York) without having been a superintendent himself.

A problem? Doesn't seem to have been in New York. Nor do I think his never having stepped foot in Baltimore until approached about the job is necessarily a drawback. Over the years, the city has looked both within and without for its top jobs -- are there any high-ranking cops left in New York who haven't tried their hand as Baltimore police commissioner? -- resulting in no discernible pattern of who succeeds and who doesn't.

As Alonso has gone through the various stations of the cross in town -- speaking to The Sun's editorial board and administrators at the North Avenue headquarters on Wednesday, and on Marc Steiner's show on WYPR on Thursday -- several themes have emerged: He's school-focused ("I'm far more interested in the notion of the school than the notion of the district," he said, noting that parents send their children to the former and not the latter). He believes individual successes can translate into broader ones ("Every school has a great classroom, every system has a great school," he said, so the trick is figuring out what they do differently). And he won't arrive July 1 with all the answers ("I don't come in with preconceived ideas," he said, adding that what works in one city isn't necessarily going to work elsewhere. "The city of Baltimore is going to teach it to me.")

For now, I give the guy credit for just showing up and taking on a school system that for all its gains -- Alonso's hiring coincided with the news that more kids are passing the state assessment tests -- remains distressed.

Recently, I happened to go to an eighth-grade graduation ceremony -- an affair both sweet and boisterous, proud and poignant, when you consider how badly some of the city's middle schools are doing. (Fewer than half of the city's seventh- and eighth-graders passed the state assessment tests.) But this ceremony was for the ones who did merit diplomas, and school officials asked the happy audience not to cheer individual graduates but to save the hollering for the end of each row. The audience complied for, oh, maybe 1 1/2 rows, after which parents and friends started letting loose for their own individual kid.

"Some of them might not make it to the 12th grade," one woman said to another, "that's why we have to act like this now."

Sadly, she's right -- earlier this week, the journal Education Week reported that Baltimore has the third-worst high school graduation rate in the country, after the worst, Detroit (which also saved us from being the most murderous city) and Cleveland. (Baltimore officials disputed the journal's 34.6 graduation rate for the city, saying it's actually much higher.)

And, along with the usual educational challenges, the Baltimore system has its political ones -- unlike most districts, it is jointly controlled by the state and city, making it a perfect pawn in election campaigns. I had fun imagining how school board members must have explained all this to him and prepped him for his own Meet the Fockers intro to its various players.

"Ah, let's see, you'll be meeting the state superintendent, Nancy Grasmick. She and the previous Baltimore CEO, Bonnie Copeland -- um, not such good friends. And you'll meet Martin O'Malley, who used to be mayor and was on Bonnie's side, while Bob Ehrlich, when he was governor, was on Nancy's side. But then Martin beat Bob, so now he's governor -- and Nancy's boss. But they don't, ah, actually get along ..."

So welcome, Dr. Alonso. Maybe you can take that very smart thing one of your mentors told you -- "The children come as is" -- and apply it to the grown-ups as well.

jean.marbella@baltsun.com

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