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’s a recent big goal that you took on, and did you pursue it through improvisation or elaborate planning?
Andres Alonso: What’s interesting is that I didn’t arrive with a blueprint. I think it’s very dangerous to go into a context and assume that because it worked someplace else it’s going to work there. In many ways it’s the context itself needs to tell you what needs to happen. There are certain things that are the answer wherever you go. I mean, you have to have teachers that are prepared. You have to provide the necessary resources to support the schools. You have to establish certain norms of effectiveness that everybody strives toward. The decisions have to be made on the basis on what's good for kids. That, in a way, might be the most important things to establish, because if the decision are made on any different basis, political basis for example, then no one should be surprised that the systems don’t improve.
So, because of this philosophy, part of what I did at the beginning was just to listen. So, within in the first two months on the job, for example, I went to community forums that allowed me to talk to 2000, 3000 people before school began. And out of those conversations, things emerge, task emerge. It was very clear, for example, that parents wanted choice. It was very clear that they wanted new settings in sixth grade and ninth grade. It was very clear that they wanted to be engaged. They felt that the school system had sort of pushed them away.
There was a kind of obsession with making adequate yearly progress with meeting “No Child Left Behind” objectives, in part because the city had never made **** in any of its dimensions. So, a lot of the work that we then did and we spent a lot of energy on creating new schools, on expanding alternative options, on working with teachers about new ways of collaborating for example. All those elements emerge from those conversations; it just seems so clear that that’s what the seriously involved people were telling us needed to happen.
And everything has been a response to process of engagement with certain clear sort of foundational pieces. The focus on achievement, I believe that the community has to be brought in because so much of the history of the district has been about the community exiting. Choice and competition as key elements of the work since, again, so much of the history of the district has been about a lack of choice so that the poorest kids have the fewest options and competition because the district was allowed to stagnate for so long. And then a combination of autonomy and accountability at the school that allows the schools to make the decisions that need to be made for their own kids. Everything has sort of stemmed from those key elements.
Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen