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Where I Come From

Metropolis

People are flocking to theaters to see Waiting for Superman, a documentary about the state of American K-through-12 education by director Davis Guggenheim, whose An Inconvenient Truth did a lot to push the threat of global warming out of scientific papers and into the corner cineplex. I, too, will join the edutainment-hungry crowd, if only because Superman’s previews look so very familiar. They remind me of the iron grates on the first-floor windows of several public schools I attended in East Baltimore; of my high school teacher Mr. Park, who was happy to stay late and give me extra homework after I developed something of a fetish for physics; and of the year I spent manning one of the community response phone lines for Baltimore City Public Schools.

In 2009, I was hired as a family and community engagement assistant for the school system. Among my several duties was being within running distance of a phone line to which were routed parent concerns, media inquiries, urgent issues of many stripes, and calls that didn’t have a natural home in any other department. My colleagues and I heard from everyone on that line: parents worried about their children’s safety after a fight, residents who hated what school events did to neighborhood parking and traffic, volunteers, community groups, would-be entrepreneurs, senior citizens, researchers, politicians.

One caller wanted justice. His brother had been a school system employee for decades when he was gunned down. This happened off school grounds, but he hoped city schools could help raise a reward for anyone with information about the murderer. One woman wanted to donate a lizard to a science class that could take care of it. Someone else insisted it was in the school system’s best interest to spread the word about a summer program that was, essentially, a fat camp with a $1,000 price tag.

The most serious concerns almost always came from parents. I remember a mother who needed a transfer for her daughter or serious mediation. After mouthing off to a number of other students, the middle schooler became the victim of cyberbullying and face-to-face intimidation so severe that her mom accompanied her to every class for more than a week. Another parent actually ended up in our office by happenstance, welcomed inside after she appeared to be lost. It turned out she was homeless. Her daughter liked her current school, but the family was afraid to tell the principal that the reason she was often late was that it took two hours and three buses to get there from their temporary housing in Baltimore County.

Some people just needed to be heard. Others needed much, much more. In every case, we just tried to be as helpful and resourceful as possible.

Two months into the job, my biggest surprise was not the quantity of calls or how serious some of them were, but how often callers mentioned city schools CEO Andrés Alonso by name. “Does Alonso know what’s happening at this school?” they might ask, or insist, “I want a meeting with Dr. Alonso immediately.” That was a popular demand. Three years ago, Alonso swept into town like some force of nature. He talked to parents, students, school staff, and community members for weeks, then spent every subsequent moment—he and his BlackBerry are practically surgically attached—instituting reforms. Alonso has, for example, given individual schools greater control over how they spend the funds they’ve been allotted, expanded the range of ways parents and community members can be involved in schools, supported programs catered to the needs of students most at risk of dropping out, and, more recently, worked to tie teacher pay to performance.

 There has been at least one major misstep—his attempt to hire former school board chair Brian Morris into a high-profile position almost immediately after Morris stepped down from the board smacked of cronyism—but mistakes like that have been rare. Alonso developed so much credibility from day one that, even when parents were furious about what a teacher or fellow student allegedly did to their child, they mostly took it as a given that he could and would help them fix it. And it wasn’t just parents. What we were hearing over the phone was that everybody wanted a piece of the school system. Some of their motives were selfish and downright venal, but within months of Alonso’s arrival, local public schools, as they grappled with instead of simply drowned under enormous problems, became a rallying point for an incredibly broad range of people. 

So it seems Baltimore found its educational Superman. Three years after the fact, that’s old news. Much more interesting, however, is how he’s convinced lots of other people to buy their own capes and figure out where they fit in.

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