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For many, the words “Baltimore schools” will conjure  an image of utter dysfunction. The city hit our popular radar in 2007, through David Simon’s scorching television series “The Wire,” and the show’s depiction of public education there was damning, to put it mildly. By that point, enrollment in Baltimore schools had been dwindling for decades, and fewer than half of all students graduated.

Enter Andres Alonso, a Cuban immigrant with minimal administrative experience and a brassy self-confidence that alienated as many as it inspired.

But in six years, Alonso was able to cut Baltimore’s dropout rate by half and end 26 years of court-ordered oversight in special education. After a rocky start, he eventually found common ground with the teachers union, too. Little surprise that in 2013, Harvard University tapped him to teach about system-reform in urban schools.

Seattle’s challenges pale in comparison to those Alonso faced in Baltimore, where 85 percent of students are low-income. But his perspective — especially on overhauling student discipline — may be instructive. Last month he spoke with The Seattle Times while simultaneously closing on a new home, juggling personal business and educational philosophy in a manner typical of his 24-7 management style. This conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Andres Alonso, former superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, now teaches system transformation at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of The Marc Steiner show.
Andres Alonso, former superintendent of Baltimore City Schools, now teaches system transformation at Harvard University. Photo courtesy of The Marc Steiner show.

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Q: When you came to Baltimore in 2007, the district was logging 25,000 suspensions a year, and you focused on school discipline as a major part of your effort to improve education overall. How did you tackle this enormous challenge?

Alonso: Right away, I changed the protocol for suspensions from 10 to five days. If principals wanted kids out of school for more than five days, they had to show evidence of progressive discipline and interventions. But there’s no such thing as “just don’t suspend the kids.” I mean, the behavior is still there. So we also put social workers from the Department of Juvenile Services at schools we saw as hubs. There was just a whole different level of supervision required.

Q: Often, student behavior patterns are set very early. How did you handle discipline with your youngest students in elementary school?

Alonso: We shifted many schools from K-5 to K-8 so there would be no separation of the elementary from the middle school problem. We wanted to minimize transitions in the lives of kids, and we felt that something terrible was happening, culturally, in middle schools. In elementary schools, people just know the kids. In middle schools, we didn’t see that.

The elementary schools were not happy. They’d say, “How can we possibly handle these sixth graders?” And my response was, you mean the fifth graders you have now? There’s a kind of demonization of kids as they get older. They become Other. The bottom line was elementary schools had to own the kids. There was no place to send them any more.

Q: A major impediment to school improvement is turnover, at all levels. Now that you’ve been out of the district for almost two years, do you see old problems creeping back?

Alonso: I don’t think so. You’re not going to see a call for zero-tolerance on discipline any more. That mindset has been fundamentally changed. But it’s true that there is always an enormous undertow. Mostly, around teachers’ sense that the best classrooms have no place for certain kinds of behavior. But on the question of suspensions, kids come as-is. There’s no pushing them out. They’re giving us what they can. If it’s not enough, it’s because we haven’t given the tools.

Q: Transferring money — and accountability — to the building level was key to your reforms, but it angered some who felt you were merely shifting blame. What were your reasons for this approach, and do you think it worked?

Alonso: Absolutely. Part of the idea behind bringing money and accountability to the building level was about generating leadership. Leadership is not about paying homage to the past. We were looking for a cultural transformation. We were looking for a sense of responsibility. We felt that if schools did not have the resources and the means to respond to their problems, we were not going to get changes — it would just be a compliance exercise. So we began to redefine this question of who’s responsible. In my first few months it was remarkable: Everybody was pointing at someone else.