Addressing hundreds of administrators as well as parents and students gathered at Morgan State University on Tuesday, city schools chief Andres Alonso described the "tipping point" at which the district finds itself on the eve of another school year.
"It's a critical moment," Alonso said. "We've made tremendous progress, but we came from a place where we had to make extraordinary progress. ... Now we're at a point where we can truly become a model for the nation as a whole."
Though the annual CEO Leadership Institute is meant to welcome new and returning administrators, Alonso said in an interview that school leaders have been "on the job" all summer.
"It's really about telling everybody, 'Look guys, we're doing a great job - we have so far to go,' " Alonso said. "We begin a new journey now."
The schools chief was one of many to address the group during a program interspersed with student performances.
Several other speakers similarly urged educators to resist resting on previous accomplishments - such as the district's recent and much-celebrated exit from "corrective action" - and to forge ahead and make additional gains. A school system goes into corrective action when a high percentage of schools have not met federal standards, which allows the state to intervene.
"You should be proud about what you have achieved and give yourselves a round of applause, because you deserve it," Mayor Sheila Dixon said to the packed auditorium. "What we have to do as we move forward is continue to stay focused. ... We also have to stay focused on where our priorities are."
Indeed, said school board Chairman Neil E. Duke, "the tide is turning here in Baltimore City," as he noted a recent time when the district was written off as underperforming and underachieving, and when a good day was one in which "nothing really, really bad happened."
"Now is not the time to lose our focus, or our intensity, because there's so much left to be accomplished," he said.
As part of a presentation to staff, Alonso reviewed the district's trend data and the strides made on state and national tests, including the Stanford 10 and Maryland School Assessments, in an effort to "see exactly where we are." He drew attention to eighth-grade math as a troubling area, in which only about 40 percent of students passed the state assessment - which poses a problem for the High School Assessment algebra test they would take as ninth-graders.
Alonso also highlighted improvements in middle school attendance, as well as a slighter uptick at the elementary level - but said the "unacceptable" high school rate of 83.5 percent must climb into the 90s for the system to truly make progress. City schools have seen a decline in habitually truant students and suspension rates, he added, reiterating his view that the district needs to work with children to keep them in school, as long as student violence is not involved.
Besides the students, Alonso zeroed in on the educators themselves and the importance of community support. He emphasized that administrators play a part in bringing highly qualified teachers - whose numbers have significantly increased since 2004, to almost 70 percent - into the classroom. To that end, the school system has gotten rid of nearly 350 teachers with expired certificates, ensured all new hires have valid ones and placed surplus highly qualified teachers in vacancies that emerged during the 2008-2009 school year. Plans are also in place to continue recruiting teachers from Teach for America and the Baltimore City Teaching Residency for areas of greatest need, according to his presentation.
"We cannot move rapidly forward as a system if we pass along to each other people who are not doing their job," Alonso said, sparking applause. "It's all in your hands."
Among other plans for the coming year, more than 80 schools are to get money to build partnerships with specific community-based organizations, pending board approval. About a dozen high schools that developed such relationships this past year also are to receive funding.