'Whatever it takes' for Baltimore schools

As Baltimore Board of School Commissioners conducts a national search for a new leader to replace outgoing schools CEO Andrés Alonso, it must consider is what further changes are needed to build on the reforms he initiated. Specifically, it needs to ask whether the improvements in school governance, attendance and teacher evaluation that were hallmarks of Mr. Alonso's tenure are by themselves sufficient to move the system to the next level, or whether a broader strategy is needed that takes into account not just what goes on inside the school building but also addresses the larger issues of poverty, violence and family instability in the communities students come from.

A successful example of the latter approach can be found in the Harlem Children's Zone, an innovative reform effort in New York City based on an interlocking network of high-quality elementary and secondary schools and "wrap-around" social services and community-building programs for children and their parents that extend from birth through college. The HCZ operates in a 97-block area in one of the city's most distressed urban neighborhoods and offers health care, tutoring and mentoring programs and recreational opportunities designed to support students throughout their academic careers.

Over the last decade the approach has produced remarkable results in boosting student achievement. HCZ founder Geoffrey Canada says that given the right leadership and a commitment to do "whatever it takes" to help students excel, there's no reason the model couldn't be replicated in Baltimore. As the city school board looks for a replacement for Mr. Alonso, it would be wise to seek out candidates who are familiar with Mr. Canada's work in New York and want to implement some of its lessons in Baltimore.

For years educators have debated whether school improvements alone can make up for the deficits many poor and minority students have already experienced by the time they enter the classroom. Some argue that well-managed, high-quality public schools on their own can close the achievement gap; others say educators need to provide a range of services and enrichment programs to help students overcome the physical and psychological stresses in poor neighborhoods that prevent them from excelling.

The Harlem Children's Zone is an ambitious attempt to do both, and based on the evidence of its students' test scores, it seems not only to be working but creating a paradigm for school reform efforts across the country. Mr. Alonso's efforts produced solid gains, and now is no time to turn back on them. But to truly move the system to the next level, the schools must become agents of change in their neighborhoods as well.

None of this will be easy or quick. Nor will it be cheap. No small part of Mr. Canada's success in New York has been due to his recognition that public funding alone is not enough to support the ambitious reforms that are needed and that part of a school leader's job is enlisting private dollars to support the effort. Whoever succeeds Mr. Alonso must be an effective fundraiser as well as an educator in order to create the kind of innovative programs that are needed on the scale required. At the same time, he or she must be someone committed to data-driven solutions and complete transparency about his or her goals and the time frame for achieving them.

Finally, the system needs someone with a patient and steady hand who understands that change doesn't happen overnight. No one believes Baltimore can simply adopt the HCZ model whole and expect immediate results. It takes time deep the relationships in the community that build the trust and public support for reforms that address the complex social, economic and legal issues that hold students back. Mr. Canada's experience in Harlem suggests that a wise leader would do better to start small, perhaps beginning with a four- or five-block radius of one neighborhood elementary school, rather than attempt to change everything everywhere at once.

Are there candidates out there interested in taking on the challenge of leading Baltimore's schools who also believe the Harlem Children's Zone model offers a valuable approach to improving public education in the city? And are the city's civic, business and political leaders willing to do "whatever it takes" to move the system to the next level? These are the questions the members of the Board of School Commissioners ought to be asking themselves as they search for a new schools CEO whose success or failure will affect the lives of thousands of Baltimore City schoolchildren for years to come.