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.
Question: What is the value of closing failing schools?
Andres Alonso: Well, so much of what happens in schools is about somehow not trying to transgress on the interests of adults. So, from a symbolic perspective, in order to ensure that everybody knew that everybody had skin in the game, because many of the schools that we chose to close had been really toxic environments in terms of their outcomes for kids over time. Because it seemed to us that if we were going to create settings that were going to work for kids in a transformational way over time, we needed to give people a chance in terms of starting new communities and settings that had truly different cultures. We chose to close schools. It’s an extraordinarily hard endeavor because one of the things that every superintendent who tries this immediately learns is that it doesn’t matter how bad a school is, the community doesn’t want it closed.
You have schools where 25 percent of the kids are performing at proficient in advance or where 30 percent of kids have graduated and you have people coming to tell you that, “No, no. It’s not about the schools; it’s about the school not getting support.” There's also a sense in neighborhoods, schools are very much part of the history of neighborhoods and anybody who dares to close a school in some way is violating a story arc for that neighborhood. People graduated from that school. Quite often you have teachers who attended the school and there's always this sense that the central office has not done its job which for us was, you know, something that we admitted from the start as in this not about the schools per say. This is about how a system has accepted a failure over time and we’re going to succeed, then we need to understand that there has to be a process of renewal and we need to give new schools a chance.
So, it wasn’t hard for us in terms of making the decision, it was hard to implement it. We closed six schools last year. We’re closing another five this year. We just announced it on Tuesday. We had already launched in that process of having conversations with community that takes tremendous energy from staff. And we - by the way, there's this debate about whether the way to improve school systems is to close schools or to turn them around. I mean, I think it takes everything. We close some, we turn some around in terms of bringing in new programs. But, the closure of the worst performing schools, I think it’s absolutely necessary as long as we’re providing something that is better as part of the exchange.
So, it’s been a hard thing for us to do, but something that I think is making the district much better. We’ve become predictable which is a really good thing in terms of how organizations work. Principals understand that if the outcomes go down, there are certain consequences and the consequences are not simply about the kids, it’s about what happens to an institution.
Right now, for example, I’m recommending the nonrenewal of a charter. It will be the first time that a charter is not renewed in the district and the reason for that is that here is a school that has all the autonomy in the world, the district is advancing, the school is regressing. Well, you know, the school loses the charter in the same way that a traditional school might be closed.
Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen