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Donald C. Fry: Alonso, schools deserve resources

In Dr. Andres Alonso, Baltimore City’s public schools have a CEO who still has the passion he brought to his office more than four years ago. He has managed to sidestep potential distractions of politics, conflicting constituencies and unwieldy bureaucracies to deftly apply limited resources to advancing a clear, strategic vision for the school system.

Recognizing this, the city school board last June gave Alonso a four-year contract extension to continue leading what has been an encouraging revitalization of city public schools.

A key tenet of his vision is remarkably straightforward. “I want us to be a system that is serving the entire city,” including the middle class, Alonzo recently told leaders of the Greater Baltimore Committee.

What makes Alonso think that public schools can accomplish this in a city where, for decades, middle class parents have presumed from the outset that sending their kids to private schools is a prerequisite to living in Baltimore City?

To Alonso, it’s not a question of whether the city’s public schools “can” do it. To be successful they must do it, he reasons. The capacity to offer and deliver a good education to all students in a city defines the quality of its public school system, he says.

Positive signs

A primary objective for teachers, principals, administrators and Alonso is to engineer “a shift in trends back to public education,” he says.

Alonso’s leadership has produced encouraging progress that starts with enrollment data. After declining by more than 30,000 students between 1994 and 2008, the system has gained more than 2,500 students since then. The current enrollment of almost 84,000 defies earlier projections of 70,000 by state planners.

“We have not only held on to our student base, we have grown it,” Alonso notes.

The school system has also achieved a 25 percent increase in the number of graduates and experienced a 65 percent decrease in the number of dropouts. In 2004, the system had almost as many dropouts as graduates. This year, there were four times as many graduates as dropouts.

Alonso’s tenure has also produced dramatic turnarounds in student performance on achievement tests, though the system experienced slight reductions in 2011 test scores.

In 2004, only 48.8 percent of students in grades 3-8 scored “proficient” or “advanced” on the state tests for reading. For math, the “proficient/advanced” level was 33.5 percent. In 2011, student scores on the state tests had increased to 69 percent and 61.4 percent respectively, despite drops from 72.4 percent and 66.3 percent the year before.

Alonso attributes the recent performance drops to the system’s increased monitoring to ensure testing integrity which, he said, had a “chilling effect” on teachers, prompting them to back off from behavior, even if acceptable, to facilitate the testing process such as reading a question twice during an oral exam.

From any objective perspective, Alonso’s leadership has spawned an impressive positive change of direction by the school system. But for the system to build effectively on these gains in quality and outcomes, he notes that ways must be found to overcome significant fiscal issues facing city schools in an era of tightening government funding.

Shifting control

Alonso credits much of the system’s progress to a strategy of shifting control of the education process more to the schools and away from the central administration. A major facet of this strategy has been to give schools more flexibility to determine how funding is spent to meet their specific needs.

For example, Alonso has increased the amount of flexible funding available to schools from $20 million in 2008 to $580 million in 2011.

“Resources need to be in schools, which need autonomy to make decisions where the issues are,” says Alonso, noting that his approach is to avoid saddling schools with mandated district-wide policies. With more autonomy, school communities “are going to make better decisions, and we’re going to get better outcomes.”

But realizing his vision for evolving into a public school system for the middle class, as well as for the urban disadvantaged, will ultimately rest on how well Alonso and the system can find new money.

The operating budget for city schools has received essentially flat funding from its largest revenue source – the state – for the last five fiscal years, and there is a limit to Alonso’s capacity for creative fiscal management. Meanwhile, the city’s portion of school operating funds has remained flat as well – between 15 and 16 percent of the city budget – for more than a decade.

Essentially, the school system has been, and will continue to be, in a position of “complete dependence” on the state for funding in a period where state budgets are tight and city influence is declining in Annapolis, Alonso points out.

Meanwhile, more than $2.8 billion in unfunded maintenance, renovation and other school facility improvement needs – and dim prospects for increased government funding – has prompted Alonso to launch a campaign to pursue creative capital funding options from the nonprofit and business sectors.

One thing is clear. If there is a school system CEO who deserves the best funding creativity that public and private sectors in the state and city can muster, Alonso is that CEO.

We must go the extra mile for an education leader who is doing the same for students and parents in Baltimore City.

Donald C. Fry, president & CEO of the Greater Baltimore Committee, writes a monthly column for The Daily Record. His e-mail address is donaldf@gbc.org.