He'd been controlling his temper all day, plotting how to say what was on his mind. His chance came at 6:45 that evening.
Andres Alonso, Baltimore schools chief executive officer, arrived in Mount Vernon to meet with a few dozen of the city's most active school parents and wasted no time getting to what was eating at him.
"How many of you called City Council today?" his Cuban-accented voice thundered through the conference room. There was silence. "Raise your hand if you did!" Nothing.
Many in the room had no clue what Alonso was talking about, but he thought they should. He carried a newspaper article describing an uproar in Canton over his plan to let a new school open in a building previously slated to close. The neighborhood was gentrified and predominantly white; the students would be mostly black, as were those at the old school, which had a history of disciplinary problems.
The area's city councilman was threatening to hold up the school system's budget if Alonso didn't back down.
"Nobody!" he cried. "Nobody called a councilman! The CEO of this school system can not" - he slammed his hand on the table - "be the only person in the school system that on a global level is saying the kids are worth it."
He railed on, and kept coming back to the same point. "My expectation is that we are not a dormant community, or a doormat community ... There should be absolutely" - he pounded his hand again - "no expectation that I make any" - and again - "decision other than for the good of the kids. That [pound] should [pound] be [pound] the [pound] demand [pound] of [pound] the [pound] city. And I have yet to make a single decision other than for the good of the kids, and I am only going to be able to get away with that purity of action if I have troops."
The monologue went on for 23 minutes. The audience at the Baltimore Education Network meeting was stunned, just as intended. It was classic Alonso: impolitic and arrogant, passionate and iconoclastic.
In July 2007, the immigrant with four Ivy League degrees charged into Baltimore to bring a culture of high achievement to a school system where historically only about half the students have graduated. It is an enormous task, one at which many have failed, not only here but in cities across America.
But Alonso, a 51-year-old bachelor, believes fervently that the poor, minority children born into America's underclass don't have to be stuck there. His urgency and intensity, often fueled by little more than diet Lipton green tea, have inspired some employees and alienated others. During his first weeks in the city, he had his driver take him around to schools at 5 a.m. to check out the physical grounds. He sends e-mails in the middle of the night, expecting rapid answers once staff arrive at work. He analyzes data for hours on end, plugged into his iPod filled with 2,000 songs, many from his homeland, to shut out the world.
The Baltimore school board has given him power unprecedented in recent history to run the system as he sees fit, a condition he insisted upon before agreeing to leave New York City, where he was deputy schools chancellor. He has pledged to stay for 10 years but also says he ought to be fired if he can't get the graduation rate up. And he says that if at any point he's prevented from making decisions that he believes are in kids' best interests, he's gone. Last month, he waged a public battle with Gov. Martin O'Malley over proposed cuts in school funding, even though O'Malley is one of two people to appoint the school board. Alonso accused the governor of retreating from a commitment to public education and hurting the neediest school districts to the benefit of wealthier ones. The governor said that was "patently false."
Just as Alonso asks to be held accountable in exchange for autonomy, he is taking an extraordinary gamble on the ability of principals, teachers, parents and students to produce excellence when given the tools for self-reliance. Early results are promising: Test scores are up, the graduation rate is up, and enrollment is up for the first time in 40 years.
Yet in a city where the violence of the streets can instantaneously spill over into the schools, progress is tenuous. In the schools that are still failing, students feel trapped and staff feel disillusioned and overwhelmed by Alonso's demands.
Education, Alonso likes to say, is all about possibilities. Too often, it's about possibilities denied.
In his own life, it was about possibilities realized.
Finding a career
Late in 1986, a 29-year old man with thick dark hair, glasses and a small gap between his two front teeth walked into a school for emotionally disturbed adolescents in the projects of Newark, N.J.
He was a new teacher sent by the central office to work with students learning English as a second language. Principal Wilma Findley wasn't expecting him. She didn't know what to do with him - or what to make of him. A Harvard-educated lawyer, she thought, and he wants to be here?