Alonso gets ahead by putting kids first

New schools CEO works hard on behalf of his No. 1 concern

June 17, 2007|By Nicole Fuller and Brent Jones | Nicole Fuller and Brent Jones,Sun reporters

NEW YORK -- There was no private office. Andres Alonso sat behind a simple desk in a corner of Room 320 - an open, airy space filled with a cluster of about 25 cubicles with low partitions, a design element to encourage greater interaction.

Just steps away from Alonso's desk, inside the grand building that houses New York City's Department of Education administrative offices in Lower Manhattan, sat his boss, Chancellor Joel I. Klein. Alonso, the No. 2 education administrator in New York, who was named the chief executive officer of Baltimore's public schools last week, has earned a reputation for his accessibility and his fierce loyalty to students.

Those qualities have earned him the deep respect of many of his colleagues - from his boss, to the 10 regional superintendents he oversees, to the principal of an elementary school with about 700 students - in a system that dwarfs Baltimore's.

More than 1 million students are enrolled in New York City's 2,000 school buildings, compared with Baltimore's 83,000 students.

Colleagues in New York describe Alonso, who left his job as a Wall Street attorney to become a teacher for special education students in Newark, N.J., as highly intelligent but able to speak simply about complicated issues, a man who brings his high standards to every project he tackles and expects the same from his staff.

Michael Best, the general counsel to the chancellor, has worked with Alonso on pressing legal issues confronting the school system, such as teacher misconduct cases and several pending class action lawsuits on behalf of special education students.

"If anybody in Baltimore thinks they're going to be able to outpace him politically, oh man, they're sadly mistaken. ... But it is always, always on behalf of kids," Best said. "And anybody who has a different agenda better get out of his way. ... He's tough. He's not naive. He knows how to work through [one] of the biggest bureaucracies in the world."

Dealing with an entrenched bureaucracy might well be Alonso's biggest challenge when he starts in Baltimore next month. Over the years, the city school system has earned a reputation for defeating the best-made plans of a long succession of leaders with lofty ideas and sparkling credentials. Alonso will inherit the wreckage left behind - unfinished educational agendas and conflicting policies.

When city school board Chairman Brian Morris introduced Alonso to The Sun's editorial board on Wednesday, he said, "We think we got our man."

In New York, Alonso's colleagues said the same. Klein described Alonso as a "star" who has the "deliberate mind of a lawyer" and "the experience of an educator."

"He's a man who actually taught special education and English language for over a decade," Klein said, adding: "I've never had a conversation with him when he wasn't totally up to speed on the research. He spent, while he was my deputy, a significant amount of time in schools, coaching principals, teachers. He's known as a world-class educator."

Alonso's mettle as an educator and a lawyer - he holds a degree from Harvard Law School - will be quickly tested in Baltimore. The school system has the nation's third-worst graduation rate among big systems, according to the journal Education Week, and it is embroiled in a decades-old special education lawsuit.

Baltimore's school buildings are old, and its recordkeeping is so poor that the system's outgoing interim CEO threatened to discipline principals who fail to keep track of their students. Its bookkeepers draft operating budgets with figures that don't check out, and state inspectors found that school employees falsely reported the completion of promised building repairs.

Elaine Gorman, an instructional superintendent in New York who previously oversaw curriculum in Baltimore County schools, said, "I can say, knowing the community, knowing the city, knowing the state, Dr. Alonso will be a tremendous asset. He will have no difficulty with the transition to Baltimore City.

"He's a very quick study," she added. "He will get input from everybody to know the context. He is not presumptuous at all. He is a willing learner and a willing listener and takes input from everybody. But he's decisive in what he believes, and it's about children."

Alonso has, in fairly short order, first as chief of staff and then in his current position as deputy, undertaken ambitious projects in New York: creating a core curriculum for the entire school system and making changes to science and math curricula.

Math test scores released last week show great improvements for New York City's third- through eighth-graders in annual statewide exams.

The city had double-digit jumps in three of the grades. About 65 percent of the students are at grade level or above, a rise of about 8 percentage points, the largest since 1999, state officials said.

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