Under new schools CEO, reason for optimism amid the challenges

August 27, 2007|By Kalman R. Hettleman

I'm excited about the new school year in Baltimore, which starts today. And I'm not alone. The appointment of Andres Alonso as CEO has generated hopeful anticipation. One thing's for sure: Under his leadership, city school bells will be chiming a different tune.

National as well as local eyes will be on us. He represents a new breed of urban school superintendent, one with potential to bridge traditional and nontraditional schools of thought about what it takes to be a successful superintendent.

In recent years, many large, urban districts have reached out to hire superintendents from the military, law, finance and business sectors. The theory, based on several decades of failed school reform, is that education is too important to be left to professional educators. As a rule, superintendents who have risen from the ranks of teachers and principals haven't shown the will to challenge the status quo or the skill to manage the process of institutional reform.

Nontraditional school chiefs have earned generally good marks in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Denver and Seattle. But the record is mixed, including a prior flop years ago in Baltimore. No urban school system has scaled the heights of reform.

Mr. Alonso combines outside and inside attributes. He is a Harvard law school graduate and a former Wall Street lawyer. He has also been a classroom teacher and second in command in the New York City school system, but he has no prior experience as a superintendent.

What should we expect in the coming school year? A lot in some ways, not much in others. Mr. Alonso has created a strong first impression with his openness, grasp of issues and take-charge persona. He has said that he will go through an extensive process, involving all stakeholders, before laying out detailed plans.

What might those plans involve? The only certainty is that he will have to set wrenching priorities at the start. More identification of early learning problems and interventions? Middle school and high school reform? School discipline and safety? Getting out from under federal court supervision of special education and shifting direction to instructional improvement? Facilities maintenance and renovations? Upgrading the budget process? The nuts and bolts of more decision-making power for principals, a theme he has emphasized so far?

He won't be able to do them all with near-equal intensity, and he shouldn't try. The road to school-reform perdition is paved with the remains of superintendents who were the victims of their own over-promises.

What he can do now - while bonding with teachers, administrators, parents and the community - is show he recognizes that it takes more to reform urban schools than just engagement, charisma and new initiatives. A new educational ecosystem must be created in which a fresh culture and management systems and skills are grown. Nothing short of that will take us to the next plateau and enable the vast majority of able educators to expand their ability to raise student achievement.

It's not so much about new ideas as about strong leadership and well-managed implementation of instruction. Mr. Alonso understands this; in his words, school reform takes less invention and more execution.

Such a transformation will take at least four to five years. He needs time and support, and the school establishment, the school board, parents, elected officials and the community must give it to him.

Even then, will he succeed? Will the city be the first urban school system to eliminate most of the achievement gap between low-income children of color and other students?

There's a fighting chance. Mr. Alonso chose to come to Baltimore because he felt the circumstances were ripe: the manageable scale of our city's school population compared with larger cities; the shared vision with the school board; the relative stability of local and state politics; and the school system's foundation of progress in recent years.

One doesn't have to be a skeptic to be suspicious of such high hopes. Haven't we heard this song before? Mr. Alonso is the sixth CEO in the past 10 years. The average tenure nationwide of urban school chiefs is less than three years.

Still, I'm betting on him - and on all of us.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a member of the Baltimore school board. His e-mail is khettleman@comcast.net.

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