The story behind my Alonso series
A colleague in The Sun's circulation department asked me to write the backstory to my series on Dr. Alonso that could be e-mailed to subscibers in our Reader Rewards and Newspapers In Education programs. I thought I'd share what I wrote with you here:
As the reporter covering the Baltimore city schools in mid-2007, I had been working my sources trying to figure out who the system’s next CEO would be – and barking up the wrong tree. I thought for sure the job was going to a guy from Philadelphia, until the name of Andrés Alonso leaked into my e-mail box on the morning of June 13.
Two hours later, he arrived at The Sun’s offices to introduce himself to the editorial board. I saw him again that afternoon at the press conference where the school board officially announced his appointment. He gave me his e-mail address and cell phone number, saying I should feel free to contact him at any time.
Was this guy serious? At that point, I’d been covering education for seven years, in two states and many school districts, and the protocol for contacting a superintendent always went something like this: Call the press office, submit questions, wait. In Baltimore, school officials often would wait until I was past deadline to get back to me, and then get angry that their views weren’t more fully represented in my articles.
Not only could I e-mail Alonso directly, he almost invariably responded within about five minutes. Soon, I realized, he wasn’t only responding to me. He was waking up before dawn every morning to reply to teachers, parents, community folks. The days of a shrouded bureaucracy were over.
Things started happening – fast. Alonso replaced central office administrators, overhauled system policy on suspensions, and took on the teachers union. All within his first two months. It was clear I had quite a story on my hands.
I started checking in with his assistant every week to get his schedule, and I began tagging along with him to events I would not be covering for the daily newspaper: parent gatherings, school visits, the monthly principals meeting. He even let me go with him on an unannounced visit to a troubled school, provided I wouldn’t name the school or its staff. As it happened, a kid pulled the fire alarm while we were there.
Projects at The Baltimore Sun have a tendency to take longer than expected, and mine was no exception. As July approached, my editors and I decided that my story – or stories – might best be timed for back-to-school in late August. And then, over the summer, both my editor on daily coverage and my editor on the project left the newspaper during a round of voluntary buyouts.
I was assigned to work with the new projects editor, Bernie Kohn. Having already followed Alonso for a year at that point, I hoped I could just do a little rewriting of the four-part series I’d drafted with my prior editor. No such luck.
Alonso had been incredibly open with me about anything involving his professional life. He’d connected me with his former colleagues from Newark, where he taught special education for a decade, and from New York City, where he was deputy chancellor before coming to Baltimore. I’d talked to his classmates and professors from Harvard. Until then, though, his family was off limits.
The absence of their voices was a glaring hole. I was (reluctantly) willing to concede Alonso that point. My new editor wasn’t. In particular, he said, I absolutely had to interview Alonso’s adopted son, Joel, one of his former special education students. Given Alonso’s adamant opposition as a protective father, I thought the story might never be published.
But in time – maybe because I was earning Alonso’s trust, maybe because he felt bad for me that my project was taking so long – he relented. He agreed to ask Joel to talk to me, and the three of us met for breakfast on a Sunday in November. I also interviewed Alonso’s sister, who inspired him to become a teacher after he decided to abandon his law career in the 1980s.
At the request of Bernie and Marcia Myers, the deputy managing editor who became involved in the project after the managing editor’s departure in the fall, I interviewed many more stakeholders in Baltimore schools than I had previously, when I thought my series would revolve around the recreation of scenes I observed. I talked to more kids, parents, teachers, principals, central office staff. This resulted in some of my favorite quotes, perhaps most notably the one from the administrator who said that if Jesus had brought Alonso the Lord’s Prayer, he would’ve had edits.
The reporting, writing and editing dragged on for seven months past the initial target date for publication. A spokeswoman for the school system began referring to the project as my “dissertation.” It morphed from four stories to one story, back to four and eventually down to three.
Despite my frustration, it was stronger as a result of the delay. While it’s still much too soon to judge the success of Alonso’s tenure, I was able to get early indicators with the release of test scores (which were up for his first year) and enrollment figures (up for the first time since 1969). Sadly, I was able to watch his response to a tragedy: the murder of a boy outside a Baltimore middle school on the Friday before Thanksgiving.
Through it all, the one thing that never changed in the series was the opening anecdote of the first part, detailing Alonso’s tirade over neighborhood opposition to the creation of a new school in a building previously slated to close. The racially charged controversy illustrated what the CEO says is the key to his character: combativeness in pursuit of righteousness. By the time the series finally ran this week, the new school was open – and inspiring hope.
Alonso agreed to let us videotape him narrating a slide show of personal photos to post on our Web site. He also went along when we asked him to try something new The Sun: a live online chat within a blog. Alonso talked with readers on InsideEd for an hour Monday afternoon, showing every side of the personality we wrote about. There was so much interest that readers submitted 43 questions before the chat even started. As one fan wrote to us via Twitter, “Video, text, chat - So this is that whole synergy thing I’ve heard so much about.”
Coincidentally, the attention comes at an opportune time for Alonso, who is fighting to protect the school district from state budget cuts. It’s good timing for us at the newspaper as well, as we struggle to maintain our relevance in the ever-changing media landscape. In the past few days, I’ve been gratified to receive e-mails from dozens of readers who say the stories resonated with them – because the subject himself is such a compelling figure, because we were able to show his impact on thousands of people, and because his work is at the heart of what needs to happen for a renaissance in Baltimore.
Stories like this are the reason we’re here.