Making Schools a “Secret Garden” for Kids

Dr. Andres Alonso was born in Cuba and emigrated to the United States with his parents at the age of 12. Originally speaking no English, he attended public schools in Union City, New Jersey, and ultimately graduated Magna Cum Laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia University. Dr. Alonso went on to earn a J.D. from Harvard Law School and practiced law in New York City before changing course to become an educator. In 2006 he was awarded a Doctorate in Education from Harvard University. 

From 1987 to 1998, Dr. Alonso taught emotionally disturbed special education adolescents and English language learners in Newark, New Jersey. He worked at the New York City Department of Education from 2003 to 2007, first as Chief of Staff and then as Deputy Chancellor for Teaching and Learning, working closely with the Chancellor in planning and implementing the reform of the largest educational system in the nation. On July 1, 2007, Dr. Alonso was named CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools (City Schools).

Among many other awards, in 2008 he was granted the “Audacious Individual Award” by the Open Society Institute Baltimore, and named “Innovator of the Year” by The Daily Record. In 2009 he was named “School Superintendent of the Year” by the Fullwood Foundation, and recognized as a “Hispanic Hero Award” winner by U.S. Hispanic Youth Entrepreneur Education. In August 2009 Dr. Alonso was appointed to the prestigious No Child Left Behind Committee for the Aspen Institute, a bipartisan effort to improve federal education policy to spur academic progress and close the achievement gap.

  • Transcript


Question: Where should twenty-somethings who want to address inequities in society be putting their energies? 

Andres Alonso:  Well, Baltimore.  They should all come to Baltimore and we will do the right thing for them.  Clearly, it’s schools.  If we don’t fix our schools, we will be having the same conversation we’ve been having for the past 40 years for the next 40.  It’s pretty astonishing to me, as somebody who’s gotten the best out of what this country has to offer, that for so many kids what was so immediate and easy for me, is so hard to get, which are environments that are going to, in a way, bring the best out of you.  I mean, school, for me, was always kind of a secret garden with almost every adult that I met along the way sort of thinking, “Oh, okay.  This kid has something,” and ensuring that that would be true.  And for so many kids, for the overwhelming majority of kids, I don’t think that’s the case.  And the structures of society are extraordinarily difficult to change and schools are a reflection of the structures of society.  

So, if we’re not tackling how to change that reflection in the schools, then the greatest country on earth is always going to have some deep, dark recesses that none of us want to venture into.  So, the work is in the schools.

If the question is about leadership, the principalship is so important.  It’s the job that has the great span.  A great principal is a leader in the community, is an instructional coach, it’s a guidance counselor to kids, it’s a business manager.  So, I encourage people to think of the principalship which is a role that is changing as schools are getting more autonomy in more and more districts.  It’s a different job than what it was 10, 20 years ago.  In school systems like mine, for example, have become places where there's an entrepreneurial spirit that a person that goes into education can run with.

So, what's intriguing for me, for example, is that then one of the reasons why I think we’ve successful in Baltimore is that the person who headed New Leaders for New Schools was a former TFA person.  The person who was developing charters was a former TFA person.  You looked around the room in any meeting of non-profits and you saw, “Wait a second.  There something going here,” which is about kids coming out of college, trying education, in many cases staying, but in many other cases seeing different opportunities, but not abandoning a kind of allegiance to the schools.