The city school system cannot take a step back, Alonso says

He addresses principals and administrators in annual 'State of the Schools' speech

August 17, 2010|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore schools CEO Andrés Alonso officially kicked off the 2010-2011 school year with an emotional presentation Tuesday to hundreds of principals and system leaders in which he emphasized that the district must focus on making strides in keeping students in school and in what they learn.

In his annual "State of the Schools" address, he said he will focus on teachers, students and classroom content in the coming school year, a goal he has echoed in recent months as the state begins to implement curriculum reforms.

He said improvement is the priority of his administration, having spent his first three years in the city working on changing the structure of the system. Last year's address urged educators not to become complacent after students made enormous gains in test scores the previous year.

"The core of the work is teaching and learning," Alonso said in his presentation "Ready to Teach, Ready to Learn."

"The work is about the kids, and done by the adults," he said. "The system cannot take a single step back."

Alonso spoke during the CEO Leadership Institute at the Carl J. Murphy Fine Arts Center at Morgan State University, as he and other city and school officials welcomed new and current principals and set the tone for the school year.

Alonso said the school system is negotiating a "cutting-edge" contract with the Baltimore Teachers Union that will put more emphasis on teacher quality. One hundred sixteen teachers were not rehired or were dismissed this year because of unsatisfactory evaluations, up from 98 last year, he said; 11 percent were rated unsatisfactory.

"When they're not up to task, and they've received the support, they need not be in front of our kids — bottom line," Alonso said.

The new teacher contract, which Alonso said he hopes will be signed by the end of August, will emphasize linking effectiveness to student outcomes and a "remarkable reconception about how teachers get paid." The city will soon implement other state-mandated changes to boost teacher quality, he said, such as granting tenure after three years, instead of two.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake also addressed the school leaders. She said student test scores were "proof to me that Baltimore students can achieve and we must do more."

Jimmy Gittings, president of the principals union, told the administrators that he was both happy and concerned to see so many new faces, referring to the number of principals who have left the system in the past few years. Gittings told the group, which included 43 principals who have taken on new assignments since January, that he will "do everything humanly possible to make sure that you and those children have the best possible year."

Using school system data reflecting everything from enrollment numbers to analysis of student scores, Alonso gave a nearly two-hour lecture, emphasizing what he called "actionable items" that school leaders need to take note of in the school year.

Highest among the priorities outlined by the schools chief was keeping students in the classroom. Statistics for the past school year indicate that the number of students withdrawing from the school system has continued to decrease and that enrollment is on the upswing. The suspension rate continues to decline.

But Alonso stressed the importance of reducing the 7.5 percent truancy rate, which he said dwarfs most other gauges of the school system's success.

"The culture of the district is not one of students being in school every day," he said. "This is something I'm going to own this year. It will be part of the core work of my office."

He stressed the achievement gap — as high as 20 percent — between students who stay in school and those who are habitually truant. In 2010, he said, about 6,200 students were habitually truant, meaning that they were out at least 20 percent of the time.

"If I stand before you next year and say there's a 7.5 percent truancy rate, any of the extraordinary work that may be emerging has to be dissipated in the effort, because the students are not there," he said.

Alonso said city students' performance on the Maryland School Assessment reflected the battle for attendance, which was made harder by the swine flu outbreak last fall and the severe snowstorms last winter, when more than 10 percent of the instruction time was lost. Though the district's test scores were flat or saw modest gains from the year before, they were still among the highest ever.

Alonso became emotional at the end of the presentation, telling the principals that dozens of PowerPoint slides filled with data cannot express his love for the city's schools.

He drew on his experience as a young student who had just moved from Cuba to New Jersey, where teachers and administrators helped breach the language barrier and furthered his education.

"I want my schools to be as good as my first schools were," Alonso said tearfully. "I want you to be as good as my first principal was.

"But it can't be a soft conversation," he said, "because too much is at stake."

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