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Sonja Santelises says she is up to the task of running the city's troubled school system

Sonja Santelises says she is up to the task of running the city's troubled school system
New Baltimore City School CEO Sonja Santelises at her office on North Avenue (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

When I sit down with newly-appointed Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises in July, she is barely a week into the new job. There is little to personalize her sunny office at the top of North Avenue, save a few small pictures of smiling children and a few stacks of papers. However, she says, she already has a lengthy to-do list.

It's no secret that running this city's school system is a Herculean task. There have been five CEO's in the last 10 years. The last CEO, Gregory Thornton, left abruptly after coming to Baltimore from Milwaukee in 2014. The Baltimore Sun reported that a performance evaluation it obtained in March showed school board members were frustrated with Thornton's management style, noting that "[t]he CEO often neglects or seems to struggle with articulating an implementation strategy." As more and more people became fed up with Thornton's apparent inability to tackle systemic problems with city schools—including State Sen. Bill Ferguson, who publicly called for him to resign or be fired—the school board arranged his departure and hired a replacement under a cloak of secrecy. The Board announced Sonja Santelises as the new CEO in May and she arrived in Baltimore to begin work in July.

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She dove right in her first week by getting the lay of the land. "It's been a lot of meetings with staff," she says. "I'm getting a sense of what their work is, what their take on the work is, their take on system strengths, and needs to be attended to."

She has also been tackling the nuts-and-bolts parts of her job—like making the calendar for this coming school year, she says, and "looking at what the kinds of activities are and making sure that it's balanced."

And then, there are the sweeping systemic problems she will need to take on in the days ahead: lagging test scores, low graduation rates, and money problems. There's also the issue of staffing. Last year, school administrators were scrambling to fill 90 positions, just days before the start of school, WBAL-TV reported.

Can Santelises say definitely that there will be enough teachers in Baltimore City schools for this coming school year? Well, no—but she says she's working on it.

"That's the goal," she says, acknowledging that it's going to be tough since she wasn't here when recruiting took place last winter, but stating that getting 100 percent of the schools fully staffed is an immediate priority.

"The system has always faced staffing challenges, so the number of vacancies really follows a very similar pattern," she says. She's focused not just on finding enough people, but finding the right people—highly qualified individuals who will be the right match for the school and the position, she says. She'll get help with this from activist-turned-mayoral-candidate DeRay Mckesson, who was hired back in June as interim chief human capital officer.

Another inherited issue is the city's 21st Century Schools building initiative, which calls for many city schools to be updated and rebuilt, and for school communities to be broken apart and put back together. Critics of the plan say the school system has done very little to help make the transition a smooth one.

"There is a lot to manage in trying to bring the large number of schools online in the short amount of time that we've set," she says. "It's a monumental task—it just is. Most communities do a school every couple of years, and we're trying to bring X number on board in X number of years, which is far shorter than that. But I do agree that we need to devote as much attention to what the instructional program in those new schools is going to look like, like what's going to be different, is it just a new building, or is it a new school?"

She says she agrees with the criticism and thinks that the school system could have done a better job of keeping communities informed.

"It is time to give far more [and] far greater attention to the bringing of those school communities together," she says.

Making Connections

Santelises's decision to hire Mckesson got people here in Baltimore and around the country talking, given Mckesson's prominent role and social media presence in the Black Lives Matter movement. It hints at her philosophy on how to turn schools around: find the people who have the resources to help and put them to work. Mckesson is a nationally known activist with experience in education, including a stint as a special assistant for human capital here in Baltimore. It makes sense that she'd team up with him, at least temporarily. He has also had the ear of President Barack Obama and makes waves whenever he tweets or shows up at a protest.

"A lot of the narrative around Baltimore, a lot of the narrative around urban centers right now is very much focused on despair and lack and the weaknesses and I feel like it's a time where we can we have a real opportunity to maximize," she says. "There's a lot of people who, I think, very genuinely, are saying, 'How can we help? How can we leverage our gifts? How can we leverage our commitment?'"

"The people who aren't committed, they weren't going to be committed before last year and they're not going to be committed after," she says. "But what I have found overwhelmingly is that the majority of people I meet want the best for our city and our city's young people and particularly those who we have not served very well."

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She says that Mckesson has hammered her with many of the questions that I have, and was quick to provide her with his own list of things she needed to get done.

About her own arrival, she says that she never wanted this job—she saw how challenging it was when she was here working as Chief Academic Officer of Baltimore City Public Schools from 2010 to 2013.

"I had no idea that I'd be sitting here. I had no desire actually, and a number of people have said that usually the people that step into these seats aren't the ones who are clamoring for them. They're usually the people who are like, 'We just gotta get something done.'"

"Most of us who have eschewed it, it's because we know how hard the work is," she continues. "I am very much aware. I cannot singlehandedly teach all first-graders in the city of Baltimore to read. I cannot singlehandedly ensure that every graduate of Baltimore City Public Schools is fully equipped with the skills and knowledge to pursue their post-graduate aspirations. I can't do that by myself, so I think that's the other thing that I bring because I'm under no delusion that this office, that this seat I'm sitting in is some kind of magic seat."

The city is at a critical juncture, she says. Things are pretty bad.

"It's a challenging time for the city and for the country, but I have found that it's usually in times of challenge that some of our greatest solutions emerge," she says. "Most great inventions come about because of great need. I wanted to be part of using what's been a challenging year and…moving all of our communities to the next level of agency and success."

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Santelises' arrival was a surprise to the city. The Sun reported in May that the school board didn't want the search for a new leader to be a distraction, and that potential job candidates were forced to sign a nondisclosure agreement. Because of that, Santelises says that she knows she has a lot of work to do getting to know people and making sure that people know her.

One of the groups that she must make inroads with is the Baltimore Teachers Union. The relationship between the school system and unions is typically fractious, but she says she wants to focus on the things that they have in common.

"A lot of it is focusing on shared goals, knowing we're not going to agree on everything, that we have different approaches, but there's a lot that we do agree on. So if we build on what we do agree on—wanting high quality learning experiences for all kids, wanting to make sure that teachers are equipped with all that they need to do their jobs effectively—if we focus on that and use that as a stepping stone to build out the relationship then it gets tight sometimes, but that makes it easier to really gain momentum and be on the same page."

She will begin by establishing good communication with the union. "I have had a chance to have some kind of orienting conversations with union leadership and kind of get a sense of where they are, some of what they are hearing. I have not yet had the opportunity to hear directly from teachers. One of my hopes is to have some meet-and-greets with teachers to just kind of hear from them. What they are feeling, what they are experiencing. That's part of the plan."

Then there are the parents. Santelises is planning a series of community conversations with them. "I'm gonna try to get out. I can't promise that I am going to meet every family member of a city schools student, but our goal is really making sure that there are a number of opportunities for that."

Everybody has opinions on the best way to run the school system, and what the most pressing needs are. Because of this, she's trying to make sure that she hears from different kinds of people.

"I'm not just meeting with one group or type of person but that I'm keeping that mixed in terms of purpose, constituencies, and even just issues," she says.

Dealing with Children in Trauma

Santelises has a lot to say about the thousands of poor and at-risk children the city school system is tasked with nurturing and educating. "We have large numbers of our kids who have experienced things that none of us would want for any child to experience, absolutely."

First, she will be partnering with Baltimore City Health Commissioner Leana Wen to help teachers and principals (whom she calls front-line contacts) understand and identify mental health problems, to help troubled kids get the services they need.

She also says that schools need to provide a counterbalance to what for some kids might be miserable home lives, to help them see that there are other options and there are healthy positive ways to cope.

"If kids are going into classrooms that are alive, that allow them voice, where they get to write and express themselves and they feel competent and capable of doing that, then that's one thing that helps to counteract that," she says. "There are young people who can curl in a corner read a book that helps them see their own experiences through a different lens, but if we are not teaching them to read, that connection is not going to be made."

She cautions people against selling kids who come from a rough background short. They can be taught to excel even while they are receiving support, she insists.

"We need to…be careful as a society that we don't fall into the fact that kids have experienced trauma as a rationale for why we expect them to not necessarily reach standards, for them not to have the skills. It's really interesting, if I go to a child psychologist's office in a surrounding county or a suburb, a relatively higher income, it's really interesting because some of those offices are filled, too. Those kids are getting the mental health services that they deserve, that they should have as our young people should, but one of the key differences is they leave those offices having received the support they need and they go back to advanced placement calculus, they still go back to having a history class, they still go back to having writing assignments that not only engage them but also help develop them as college- and career-ready writers."

Fiscal Responsibilities

Of course, it's impossible to talk about anything the school system wants or needs to do without talking about dollars and cents. City schools have been forced to readjust this year's budget, eliminating some staff positions. In April, former schools CEO Gregory Thornton submitted a proposed budget of $1.2 billion, and it was approved by all members of the school board in May. The number of students in city schools has gotten smaller—in the 2013-2014 school year, student enrollment was 84,730. The following year, it bounced up to 84,976, but by last year it had fallen back down to 83,666—and that has impacted the amount of funding for city schools.

Her views on money are realistic—less "how much money do we need?" and more "what can we do with what we have?" That doesn't mean that she doesn't appreciate the fact that you can't get work done without adequate funding.

"It requires a serious [financial] investment if we really want all kids to perform at high levels," she says. For example, "It takes resources to make sure that there is an art teacher in every school," she explains.

"There is a responsibility on those of us in the system both at the district level, the school level, to be able to maximize the resources we have well. And that is a stewardship function."

"It takes more to educate a child in poverty, just because of the enrichment that is needed," she acknowledges. "We know with kids who come from low income families that discretionary income is not there. We know that there are a host of other factors that come first. We know that incidences of trauma are higher…so if we're going to have to devote resources to that, then of course we're going to need more resources. Now how those resources come? Which ones we prioritize? That is the role of stewardship."

She wants to make sure the schools get the most bang for their buck and focus funds on those initiatives, she says.

"We have to prioritize. We can't do 50 different little things and expect to have the same impact as saying look, this is our best bet.

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"When you're in a big bureaucracy everybody cries waste, so we have to do the best we can to mitigate that, to reduce that, to eliminate it so that we're maximizing the dollars we have. My feeling is if we're going to ask for more, then we need to make sure that we're stewarding what we have well before we go asking for more or as we go asking for more."

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