Two years ago, only 150 students attended Holabird Elementary, then a K-5 school in the southeastern corner of this city. Competition from charters and from regular public schools in nearby Baltimore County had drained families from Holabird, a chronic underperformer.
So when Andrés A. Alonso, the chief executive officer of the Baltimore city schools, began last year to allocate money to schools based on their students’ needs, Holabird stood to be hit hard. Achievement had started to rise, but its small roster put the school at risk of losing six teachers unless more students enrolled.
Principal Lindsay Krey, about to start her second year as the leader of the school, decided to knock on some doors.
“We were worried about how much we could lose, but it became a rallying point for our staff and our parents,” says Ms. Krey, now in her third year at Holabird. “We were starting to see some real progress, so our parents went door to door to tell others what was happening.”
Students in grades 3-8 in Baltimore have been making steady gains on the Maryland School Assessment.
Percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in reading:
Percent of students scoring proficient or advanced in math:
SOURCE: Baltimore City Public Schools
The door-knocking campaign worked: Fifty new students enrolled for the 2008-09 school year, sparing Holabird from budget cuts. And it gave Mr. Alonso a powerful example of how his “fair student funding” model could inspire hustle and creativity from principals, who under the new model are in control of most of their budgets.
Fair student funding is just one piece of a multipronged strategy that Mr. Alonso, a Harvard University-trained lawyer who taught special education in Newark, N.J., has introduced since becoming Baltimore’s schools chief in 2007. Given broad latitude by the appointed school board members who hired him, Mr. Alonso has replaced roughly 40 percent of the city’s principals, eliminated more than 450 positions in the central office, shut down or overhauled failing schools, and opened a variety of schools designed to serve children at risk of dropping out.
Three years after Maryland’s top education official threatened to take over or close several low-performing Baltimore schools, Mr. Alonso presides over an 83,000-student district that has moved out of the bottom academically and gained momentum around raising student achievement.
Elementary students’ performance on state exams improved enough this year to propel the district out of “corrective action,” the status assigned to Maryland school systems with a high percentage of schools that fall short of meeting benchmarks under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The designation allows state officials to intervene by taking over schools or shutting them down. (Baltimore’s middle and high schools, however, did not make adequate-yearly-progress goals.)
The graduation rate—one of the lowest in the nation, by some measures—is rising, albeit modestly. Out-of-school suspensions, which hit a high of 25,000 in 2005, have plummeted. And for the first time in decades, enrollment in Baltimore’s public schools is going up.
“I think Dr. Alonso is building a high level of confidence in the school system,” said Nancy S. Grasmick, Maryland’s longtime state superintendent of schools. “I never saw such a comprehensive approach to school reform and improvement from anyone else who was in that position. He has not, and will not, tolerate chronically underperforming schools.”
Mr. Alonso views the academic gains in Baltimore so far as incremental, or, in his words, “a move in the right direction.” But, he adds, “the psychological impact of no longer being at the bottom has been powerful here. For so long, people believed Baltimore would always be last, no matter how hard they worked.”
The 52-year-old former teacher is emphatic that raising the quality of teaching and learning is his top priority. Mr. Alonso sought to require that teachers in all 200 district schools meet weekly for “collaborative planning time,” to examine student data together and devise strategies to improve instruction for children who are struggling.
The move, he says, “was a controversial part of my entry,” because the Baltimore Teachers Union wanted its members to be paid for what they said was additional work. While some schools were already using collaborative planning, Mr. Alonso’s push for it districtwide caused a dispute with the union that was finally settled by an arbitrator, who ruled that the planning time could be required in nearly all of the city’s schools.
While weighing whether to leave his job as the deputy chancellor for the New York City public schools to come to Baltimore, Mr. Alonso pored over the Maryland district’s achievement data and drew some conclusions.
One, he says, was that the upward trend in elementary achievement did not jibe with the largely negative feedback he was getting about the district. Another was that if he took the job, he’d have to close or overhaul a handful of abysmal schools and figure out a way to open new ones that could lure back parents who had pulled their children out of the system.
“There were things in place here that I thought we could really build from,” said Mr. Alonso, who liked the city’s robust charter school sector and the district’s attention to professional development and mentoring for new teachers. But the CEO also described the district as “bipolar” because of what he saw as huge gaps in the quality of school leadership and the types of innovative approaches that principals and teachers were using to improve student outcomes.
Those inequities, he decided, could be fixed in part by pushing most of the budgeting authority out of district headquarters and down to principals, and redistributing money across schools based on the characteristics of the students in them: Poor children, those with special needs, and English-language learners, for example, are assigned additional dollars, or “weights.” But it was putting the budget decisions squarely on principals and holding them responsible for their results that was the most radical change.
Under the old staffing model, principals would “inflate their numbers to get more money,” but still had virtually no say over what programs were in their buildings, said Matthew Hornbeck, the principal of Hampstead Hill Academy, a pre-K-8 charter school that until 2004 had been a traditional district school. “It was a game everyone played, and it was wrong and unfair,” said Mr. Hornbeck, who helped Mr. Alonso lead the effort to change the funding formula.
While many principals have embraced their new budgeting powers, the reality at times has been rocky, Mr. Alonso said. If a school gets a bill for a $150,000 textbook order, for example, it has to have the money to pay for it.
“That is a major culture change,” the CEO said.
The approach holds promise, said Stephen Plank, a sociology professor at Johns Hopkins University and the co-director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, but it’s premature to judge if it will lead to better student achievement.
“It seems to me that open questions remain about whether principals literally have enough hours in the week and enough technical information at their disposal to make all the decisions being asked of them in ways that will ultimately benefit students,” Mr. Plank wrote in an e-mail. An essential piece of the funding reform, he said, will be the quality of support and training that principals receive from the district to skillfully handle their budgeting responsibilities.
M. Jane Sundius, the director of education and youth programs for the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, a locally run arm of the New York City-based foundation created by the philanthropist George Soros, said the fair-student-funding approach has corrected years of “shocking disparity,” especially in the city’s high schools.
Coming to the top schools job as an outsider, Mr. Alonso, a Cuban immigrant who learned to speak English in public schools in New Jersey, knew he would have to work hard to win the support and trust of Baltimore’s parents and other residents.
Shutting down six schools and relocating a high school from a whiter, more affluent part of town to a more racially and socioeconomically mixed neighborhood tested his political skills immediately.
In moving the National Academy Foundation High School, which used what Principal Karen Webber-Ndour called “soft” selection criteria, Mr. Alonso insisted the campus drop those and open enrollment up to children in its new neighborhood. His goal was to bring a well-run, academically sound high school to a section of town that did not have one. To complicate matters, Mr. Alonso had decided to move the school into a building where a long-failing middle school with a history of disciplinary problems was being phased out.
“During the community forums for this, he got visceral pushback,” said Ms. Webber-Ndour, who favored the move across town. “At some point, I had my own doubts when parents were coming to me claiming that the school would lose students if we moved and the quality would go down.”
Mr. Alonso was unbowed. The school opened in its new location last month, and 88 percent of the students and 100 percent of the school staff came along, according to Ms. Webber-Ndour.
One political issue the CEO did not navigate so well was his hiring of Brian Morris, the former chairman of the school board, who had played a key role in bringing Mr. Alonso to Baltimore. Earlier this year, Mr. Alonso tapped Mr. Morris for an unadvertised, $175,000-a-year job to oversee the district’s operations, a move that sparked protest from the teachers’ union and other community members, who complained that the hiring process was unfair.
After the Baltimore Sun reported that Mr. Morris, who earlier worked as head of the city’s minority business affairs, had a history of bad debts and had not graduated from the University of Maryland, as stated in his school board biography, the controversy escalated. Within days, Mr. Morris quit, and Mr. Alonso issued an apology saying the hiring was a mistake.
Nothing vexes Mr. Alonso more than Baltimore’s high school graduation rate, which, according to the state of Maryland’s calculations, was 62.69 percent in 2009, up slightly from 60.05 percent in 2007. To stem the loss of so many teenagers, he is trying several different tactics.
One is an aggressive campaign to identify students who have left within the past 12 months, sending them letters inviting them back, and for those who are harder to locate, dispatching clergy members, community leaders, and dis trict administrators to find them. But bringing them back to school isn’t enough. The district had to come up with an approach that would work for their complicated lives. One strategy is the opening this fall of three “accelerator” high schools, which are designed to speed up students’ paths to graduation, especially for those who are overage for their grades and lack credits.
Ms. Sundius of the Open Society Institute said that the effort to bring dropouts back to school has sent a powerful message to students who never expected to hear from the system again, but that it still needs work.
“I think the options we offer them have really got to get better,” she said. “I think last year, most of the kids who came back ended up getting placed in large, comprehensive high schools, and they encountered many of the same issues that caused them to drop out in the first place. We’ve got to reach them earlier.”
To do that, the district has opened six “transformation” schools for students in grades 6-12. Run in collaboration with outside partners around academic themes, the schools are designed to “give secondary teachers more time on task with these kids, by starting them in the 6th grade, so that they are actually ready for high school work when they get to 9th grade,” said Mr. Alonso. The model also eliminates an overwhelming transition for some students: moving from middle school to high school.
So far, parents are opting for some of the schools in robust numbers. At the REACH! Partnership School, a transformation school in its second year, Principal Michael Frederick had 250 applications for 85 6th grade slots.
The transformation schools are an “exciting initiative,” said Mr. Plank, the Johns Hopkins researcher. But, he noted, “there is not a lot of existing empirical evidence from other districts” that shows that the strategy will work.
Mr. Alonso acknowledges the lack of research, but argues that the schools are offering attractive options to parents.
“I felt strongly that if I provided parents with new and compelling settings, especially at the 6th and 9th grade levels, we could prevent some of the dropout and departure problems in those grades,” he said. “If parents were taking their kids out of the system, it’s because we haven’t been giving them choices.”
Coverage of leadership is supported in part by a grant from The Wallace Foundation at www.wallacefoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the October 28, 2009 edition of Education Week as On An Upward Swing