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: How has your experience teaching ESL and special needs students informed your administrative career?
Andres Alonso: You know, I’ll just tell you about a moment of frustration. I walked into the classroom without ever having had an education course. Had been a lawyer, sort of fell into this environment where I was running a program and I was teaching. And I had - there were emotionally disturbed adolescents, age 11 through 14, and because it was self-contained settings, you had kids ranging from 11 years old to 14. The kid who was completely in grade level to the kid who didn’t read.
And there's a kid that I’ll always remember. His name was Ivan. Bright, bright, bright. Right now, I mean, I know that this is a kid who was completely dyslexic. Nobody ever diagnosed what he had and he ended up in a classroom for emotionally disturbed kids. There was nothing emotionally disturbed about this kid. He just couldn’t function in a school and nobody had figured out a way to approach him. So, I remember going to my principal, a woman named Wilma ****, and this must have happened within the first month that I was a teacher. And basically reaching out to her and just saying, “You know what, I just don’t know how to teach this kid. I don’t know how to teach Ivan. I sit with him every single day for 45 minutes. Figure out a way to give him 45 minutes of one on one instruction. I come back the next day, it’s like we’ve done nothing the day before.” And I always remember her telling me sort of, like, there's a key. Just looking for the - just keep looking for the key. Keep looking for the key. She was a great influence.
So, when I think of classrooms and think of kids, I always think of that kid and that name. It’s a very important thing for me. I mean, this idea of, “What do we do with Ivan, right?” And also that idea that you might have tried 35 things, but there's a key that you haven’t found. And of course, it informs the way that I think, because I was so unprepared and the systems were not in place back then. The knowledge might not have been in place. While today, I think that we have - in places that have gotten their act together, they are just different ways of insuring that somebody who walks into a classroom without the necessary knowledge gains the hooks, is able to have the kinds of conversations so that they don’t walk into a room and say, “I just don’t know how to do this.”
So, that’s very much at the core of how I see the work. I think that there is a key and I think that we all benefit from saying sometimes, “I just have no clue how to approach this.” I think adults have a hard time with that.
Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen