More than 100 city principals have been reassigned or have left the school system since Andrés Alonso took the top job three years ago, a number that he acknowledges is unprecedented but says is necessary to move the district forward.
Alonso said this week that 43 schools had been assigned new principals since January, maintaining a consistent trend of about 40 leadership changes a year since he started with the school system in 2007. They include both new principals and principals given new assignments. There are 198 schools in Baltimore.
"I am impatient about performance, and we should not accept mediocrity, ever," said Alonso, explaining the reason for the high turnover. "We are also changing many things, and redefining what needs to be done. For some leaders, so much change has been a problem."
But administrators union President Jimmy Gittings does not agree that the high turnover is yielding the desired results.
"Previous CEOs have expected the same type of results that Alonso wants, but they went about getting them in a different way," Gittings said. "They did it in a less aggressive manner."
Some city education observers say that Baltimore, because it primarily serves a low-income population, has an obligation to find a better strategy, such as team up with universities, to bring more leadership stability to the district.
"A principal has some kind of instructional leadership, and if it changes every year or two, it will be destructive for teachers and students," said Jessica Shiller, education director for Advocates for Children and Youth. "The leader of a school really dictates the culture of that school. And with such high turnover, students don't really have incentive to take the school seriously."
Alonso declined to release specifics on the number of principals who had been fired in the past three years, citing personnel restrictions, but said that turnover numbers reflect firings, resignations and retirements, as well as the expansion and creation of schools and a continuing review of school performance. He also said that no decisions are made without a school community's input.
Some of the more high-profile changes at schools this year have involved two that were investigated for testing irregularities, George Washington and Abbottston elementaries. In addition, the principals of the prestigious City College and Polytechnic Institute were removed last week, just two weeks before the start of the school year.
Alonso said the highest turnover numbers came in his first two years, when about 80 leadership changes took place. He said the turnover was "not normal in comparison with the history of the district, where principals were often shuffled to other principalships when there were problems of performance," he said. The school system did not provide data for principal turnover for the years before Alonso's tenure.
Gittings said that at least 90 administrators — including principals, assistant principals and school-related central office staff — have left the system altogether in the past three years, with at least 10 principals retiring every summer.
"It's not only a rough string for principals, but for all administrators," Gittings said. "The mode of operation has changed so drastically, and the change came so dramatically."
Before Alonso began in 2007, the norm was four to five principal retirements a year, Gittings said, adding that "some are leaving out of frustration, but I think the main reason is the change in the management style." He said that as a result, he believes the system has lost a great deal of expertise.
But it is not unusual for urban school districts to have high turnover numbers, according to Michael Casserly, executive director for the Council of Great City Schools, which represents a national coalition of large urban public school districts.
"It's a sizable number but what I would expect from a district undergoing the reforms that Baltimore is," Casserly said.
According to city schools data, 70 of the 117 leadership changes that have taken place in the past three years were internal appointments — meaning that they were hired from within the system to lead a school; 27 were brought in from outside the system; and 20 were reassigned from another school. Despite the turnover, the school system says it has an 80 percent principal retention rate.
Casserly said other large urban districts undergoing reforms, such as Philadelphia and New York, have about 80 percent of principals leaving their posts in a three- to five-year period. Baltimore's could be less than that because its principals are unionized, he said.
"I would have actually expected more" in Baltimore, he said. "Other big-city school districts have half or more of their principals turn over in the period of two years."
Alonso said he makes no apologies for changes that come by way of aggressive methods, and while stability in a school is a factor, the bottom line is achievement.