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Profile                                                                Page 51

 

Tough-Minded at the Helm

of Charm City

 

BY PAUL RIEDE

 Profile_AndresAlonso
Andrés Alonso

In 1969, 12-year-old Andrés Alonso fled his native Cuba with his family and arrived in New Jersey, entering 7th grade unable to speak any English.

Seven years later, he was accepted at Columbia University. He would go on to Harvard Law, spend two years as a corporate litigator on Wall Street and, after rethinking his priorities, take a job teaching middle schoolers. That choice would lead eventually to his current post as CEO of Maryland’s 84,000-student Baltimore City Public Schools.

Alonso’s remarkable story might seem like the stuff of a Hallmark made-for-TV movie, but to hear him tell it, his logical progression stemmed from a central fact: He was surrounded by people who valued education, believed he could succeed and knew how to help him do so.

As a student, his first American school in Union City, N.J., was filled with Cuban children like himself whose families had escaped the repression of Fidel Castro’s revolution. “There was a lot of encouragement for what we could do,” he says. “The school was all about what was next for us.”

That concept has formed the basis of Alonso’s mission in Baltimore, where he is credited with reforms that in four years cut the dropout rate in half while increasing attendance, graduation rates and test scores. Data released last fall showed that of the students who entered high school in 2007, 87 percent had either graduated or were still in school.

Alonso, 54, has taken some hard lines to make that happen, closing more than two dozen failing schools and replacing scores of principals. And he successfully pushed through a pay-for-performance system for teachers.

“It’s never about programs,” he said of his reform efforts. “It’s about instilling a focus, doing all the work around that focus and making sure everybody understands what you’re doing.”

Loretta Johnson, a former co-president of the Baltimore Teachers Union who is now secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of Teachers, says Alonso is tough-minded but eager to collaborate for the right reasons. “You must document to him that what you are demanding is going to help children,” she says.

Alonso himself was filled with the desire to succeed — or in his words, “make a lot of money” — when he began work as a corporate lawyer in Manhattan. But after two years of billable hours, he reconsidered. He took a job teaching English as a second language to emotionally disturbed middle-schoolers in Newark, N.J.

He ended up spending 12 years in Newark, getting deeply involved in the lives of children. He became so concerned about one former student that he arranged with the student’s mother to take legal custody of him. The move allowed the boy to escape his troubled neighborhood and attend schools and programs that were right for him, Alonso says.

In 1999, Alonso was accepted at Harvard’s Urban Superintendents Program. Four years later he was hired by New York City, where he was elevated to deputy chancellor for teaching and learning in 2006. He was the Baltimore school board’s top choice the following year.

Alonso says the district has been able to make big gains by picking the “low-hanging fruit” of reform, but challenges remain.

“Now we’re trying to get to the top of the tree,” he says.

Paul Riede is a staff writer with The Post-Standard in Syracuse, N.Y. E-mail: hoffried@twcny.rr.com


BIO STATS: ANDRES ALONSO

Currently: CEO, Baltimore, Md., Public Schools 

Previously: deputy chancellor, New York City Public Schools

Age: 54

Greatest influence on career: My son and the experience of finding choices for him in Newark, N.J. He was my student first, and then I took legal custody of him. How he experienced school — or really how I as a parent experienced the choices available for him — became the prism through which I saw everything related to education. Nothing else compares to the force of that influence. 

Best professional day: Opening schools after an earthquake and a hurricane. It was just such a pure, happy day for everyone. Somehow the two-day delayed opening got to what makes schools the heart of everything.

Books at bedside: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin; Class Warfare by Steven Brill; and High Strung: Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis’s Fiercest Rivalry by Stephen Tignor

Biggest Blooper: I tried to hire my board chair as my deputy. It was a natural decision on its merits, but it backfired like crazy. The reaction was in some ways predictable, and yet I didn’t see it. It passed away and left no permanent mark on the district. 

Why I'm an AASA member:  Lots of reasons. There is power in association. It can lead to great learning. I like the magazine. And I like the website.

 

 

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