The Face of a Rebounding School System
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 does your job entail on a day-to-day basis?\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, I’m the head of a large urban school district. I have 201 schools, 83,000 kids, 12,000 employees, 6,600 of them teachers. Because I’m the face of the district, the work is about interacting with parents, with stakeholders. Because I’m the lead manager in the district, it’s also about visiting schools, meeting principals, having the kinds of interactions that are about the operations of the district. I try to be in school three, four times a week. It’s not always possible and it’s a 24/7 job with very long hours, lots of frustration but also lots of energy and great, great moments in terms of what we see in classrooms and in schools.\r\n
Question: What are the biggest challenges facing you as CEO, and what specific steps have you taken to address them?\r\n
Andres Alonso: Well, the most serious problem, of course, is chronic underachievement. We have a school system where traditionally fewer than 50 percent of the kids were graduating every single year. It was also our school system that over time had lost tens of thousands of students from its enrollment. Part of it because the city went from a city of a million people in the 1960’s to a city with 600,000 people in the early 2000. Lots of poverty, serious crime issues, tremendous issues of compliance in terms of its relationship with the state, a 25 year old special education lawsuit that has just refused to go away.\r\n
So, many, many issues similar in some cases, unfortunately, to the issues that other cities like Detroit, Cleveland, DC, have had over time, but with their own unique flavoring of course. And the work for me from the beginning was about, first of all, create a sense of energy and hope about the district. The sense that we were going to get the kids the graduate, give parents the choices that they had felt over time they didn’t have which caused them to leave, establish norms of accountability and norms of effectiveness in the district and engage, engage, engage with parents, teachers, business, community folks so that we would all reach a consensus about what needed to be done in the schools.\r\n
In, you know, three years into the job, I’m on my 31st month in the job, I think that we have been remarkably successful in terms of beginning to turn around a school district and having quick wins in making significant leaps in a relatively short amount of time.
Recorded on January 29, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen
The Baltimore schools CEO discusses the remarkable strides he’s made in turning around one of the poorest, most under-served districts in the nation.
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