Job No. 1: Keeping Alonso

Baltimore schools chief's growing reputation means city will need to fend off other suitors to retain him

November 23, 2010|By James Campbell

When the Baltimore school system announced the appointment of Andrés Alonso as its new chief executive officer in 2007, Brian Morris, the board chairman, said, "We went after the best and we got him." Mr. Morris added, "The stakeholders in this community told us they wanted a leader with a deep personal commitment to public education, knowledge of education reform and improvement strategies, and a strong track record of improving educational achievement."

Mr. Alonso has not let us down. He is recognized as one of the best CEOs in the country. At this critical time in city schools' history, with its recent record of success, it is important for the school board to renew Mr. Alonso's contract, which expires next June, for another four years to continue the reforms now under way.

As a former board member who was involved in hiring Mr. Alonso and who worked with him for three years, I have seen how his philosophy of valuing children has affected the system and its treatment of students. He has said many times, "Kids come as is and it is our job to meet their challenges. It's about making students successful in school and in life."

One of his first acts as CEO was to implement a new budgeting process called Fair Student Funding. This gave more decision-making authority to principals, with budgets based on the number of students in a school. This led to greater efforts by school leaders to attract and keep students. High schools went after those who had dropped out and, on the other end of the spectrum, Baltimore became a leading district in expanding full day pre-K. Surprisingly, the overall school population actually started to increase after decades of decline. The most visible effect of this policy was opening a high school in city schools headquarters for those who had been expelled or suspended. A daily reminder to school administrators that their work is all about the students.

Another Alonso initiative, Expanding Great Options, involved restructuring or closing poorly performing schools and opening new ones. This program, which required strong board support, met stiff opposition from communities opposed to closing popular neighborhood schools. As he pushed forward with his recommendations, Mr. Alonso would frequently point out to parents that if one school fails, the system fails. He refused to accept failing schools.

By adding new charter, transformation and contract schools to the mix of traditional elementary, middle and high schools, Mr. Alonso has created what researchers call the "portfolio school district," offering a menu of choices for students in which performance is more important than structure. Portfolio districts, according to the Center for Reinventing Public Education, have a higher level of accountability and are built for continuous improvement through replicating successful schools, closing or replacing failing schools, and constantly searching for new and better ways to teach students.

Baltimore is showing steady improvement in student achievement levels and no longer holds the reputation as being the worst-performing system in the state. Elementary school students' test scores are among the fastest-improving in the state, and first- and second-graders scored above the 50th percentile nationally. Recent studies show gains in the graduation rate and sharp reductions in the dropout rate. Last month, the Maryland Department of Education reported the city had cut its dropout rate by more than 50 percent since 2007. The numbers took on greater significance when it was reported that African-American males were driving the results and performing better as a group than the overall district. Mike Casserly, executive director of Council of the Great City Schools, said, "Cities across the nation will beat a path to Baltimore to find out what the district is doing to make this kind of progress."

Perhaps Mr. Alonso's most significant accomplishment to date is the signing of the landmark new teachers contract last week, which creates a career ladder for teachers and ties their evaluation to student performance. Hailed by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the contract marks a significant step forward in school improvement efforts. It also signals a new level of cooperation and collaboration between the CEO and the unions.

In 31/2 years at the helm of what was one of the state's most troubled systems, Mr. Alonso has brought new energy and positive direction that has spread beyond the schoolyard. For example, the impressive three-year drop in Baltimore's juvenile crime, as reported in The Baltimore Sun, can be attributed, in part, to the school system's effort to bring back students who have left school and the unprecedented level of cooperation with police and juvenile officials.

With the high demand for talented individuals to lead complex districts, Baltimoreans must expect to pay additional dollars to retain this uniquely qualified leader. The board should work to lock down a new contract to keep Mr. Alonso in place for another four years. We need to keep his reforms and the outstanding leadership team he has assembled in place. The city would be hard-pressed to find a replacement of his stature to lead the system. The time to act is now.

James Campbell, a former member of the Baltimore school board, is a senior communications manager for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education. His e-mail is jcamp@jhu.edu. He edits an education blog, soetalk.com.

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