Big ideas, bold action

Our view: The sweeping changes envisioned in Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso's reorganization plan are necessary if real reform is to succeed

March 15, 2009

It was inevitable that the sweeping reorganization plan Baltimore schools chief Andres Alonso presented to the school board last week should have provoked surprise, confusion and a measure of unease among students, teachers and parents. After all, Mr. Alonso might easily have rested on his laurels from last year's gains - dramatically higher test scores, a doubling of the number of alternative schools and half a dozen new combination middle-high schools. Instead, like a military commander intent on exploiting a recent victory, he is pressing to take swift advantage of his success.

Mr. Alonso's fresh assault on education inertia in the city's school system is appropriate and timely. He is proposing to close or reorganize dozens of underperforming schools and transfer their students to successful new schools that are coming on line or growing at a dizzying clip. Closing the failing schools sends the important message that failure is not an option. The challenge he faces is offering enough alternative schools that are working and that kids want to attend. There is tremendous demand for a handful of schools, such as National Academy Foundation High and Digital Harbor High School, which are aiming to expand their enrollments. It's harder for parents and students to make judgments about the quality and appropriateness of other choices of schools.

It's that important detail that has some parents worried. Where might their children go if the school they're in now closes? Mr. Alonso says there are lots of good answers to such concerns. The school department has issued a detailed explanation of the reorganization along with a list of school options for affected students (see Students at the William H. Lemmel Middle School, for example, which is to close, might choose any of at least five other schools within a two-mile radius, including three new charter and middle-high schools in the present building. High school students can apply to any in the city, and most usually get one of their top three choices.

Mr. Alonso says his job is to bring as much progress to the schools as quickly as possible - and also to redefine what is possible. His reforms so far have been among the boldest in the country. It's not rocket science, he says: Students succeed when they're put in environments that work, and they fail in schools that don't. To turn around the whole system, you have to maximize the number of good schools and minimize the bad - and do it now, because even a single year in the life of a child can make all the difference between success and failure.

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