City's academic chief departure comes amid critical instruction year

Sonja Santelises
(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Sonja Santelises stood before a room of Baltimore educators whose faces were filled with angst as she spoke about a rigorous new curriculum that would soon change everything they thought they knew about teaching.

Three years later, when she pulled up a new English and language arts curriculum aligned with new standards — known as the "common core" — that will be rolled out this year, a room of educators erupted into cheers.


"That didn't mean that everything is perfect, because there's no magic bullet to this common core thing," Santelises, the city schools' chief academic officer, recalled recently. "That meant that there is a troupe of people here who were ready to do this work."

Santelises, who will leave her $175,000 job with the city school system Sept. 20, reflected on such displays of confidence as she visited educators settling into a school year that will mark the most substantive changes to classroom instruction in decades. Her resignation is the second key leadership departure in Baltimore's school system in as many months.

Santelises, 46, acknowledged that her departure is significant, particularly coming on the heels of the resignation of city schools CEO Andrés Alonso in June. Education stakeholders and observers say that while Santelises has built a solid foundation for the school system's academics, the pressure is on to find strong leaders in the coming year.

"There's just a lot going on, and there's a leadership void right now," said James Campbell, who works at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and served on the school board that hired Alonso.

Campbell called Santelises "an outstanding leader who emphasized excellence," and whose "emphasis was always on quality education and taking the system to the next level.

"There's a lot of top leaders leaving, so the constant has to be the board," Campbell said. "I hope they focus on the search to get the best person they can get for the job."

City school board President Shanaysha Sauls called Santelises' departure a "significant loss to the district."

"She was an important part of our sense of optimism and possibility moving forward," Sauls said. "We are confident her work and her leadership, on behalf of students and staff, has been strategic. And Baltimore is left in a better place than where it started."

Santelises, who will head to Washington to serve as the vice president of K-12 policy and practice at the Education Trust, has maintained a low profile since Alonso brought her on in 2010 to orchestrate one of the most critical academic transitions in recent years.

The mother of 4-year-old twin girls and a 7-year-old will still live in the city, and her children will continue to attend city schools.

Alonso said in 2011 that she was the first person he called when he knew he would take the job in Baltimore, and she turned him down three times before agreeing to leave her job in Boston's public school system, where she was assistant superintendent of a network of charter-like, autonomous programs.

When she arrived, he said, people "began paying attention to standards in a way that hadn't occurred in the district before."

Santelises said that while she had hoped the district's test scores would not be stagnant during her tenure, she told Alonso six weeks into the job that she "didn't care about his reading scores, I'm in schools and kids aren't reading."

Her early emphasis on literacy has resulted in a reversal of low reading scores among middle school students, who posted some of the few gains on state tests last year.


And last year, Baltimore kindergartners showed an unprecedented rise on the state's standardized "readiness" assessment — even as scores in the highest-performing districts were flat or declined — a change that state and city officials attributed to the system's advanced introduction of the common core in pre-K programs.

This year, all Maryland public schools will be using a new curriculum, a change dictated by the state's decision to sign on to the voluntary national common core standards, which are designed to require higher-level thinking and more rigorous lessons.

Linda Eberhart, a retired teacher and former director of teaching and learning in the school system, said educators should take solace in the fact that what Santelises built cannot be easily dismantled.

"No one is comfortable with all this change, and she's been the one there saying, 'This will be OK,'" Eberhart said. "It's going to be hard, but it's going to be hard even with her here."

She added: "It's going to be a challenging time for the school board for the next few months."

Eberhart recalled that in preparing educators for the common core, Santelises brought in the writers of the new standards so that educators could hear about the new curriculum directly from the source.

She overhauled professional development to be more intensive and to have more substance. And she began coaching principals, who are now "instructional leaders" and part of a decision-making team.

Now, Santelises said, it's time for her to advocate for educators at the next level.

"There hasn't been this much activity at the federal level in one to two decades," she said. "And I think the biggest frustration has been this question of: Where is the ground-level voice in the national focus? It's an important time to steer that conversation, and I feel strongly that someone needs to advocate at the national level, to make the road easier for leaders and teachers who put their trust in our team."

Among those leaders was Principal Amanda Rice, who through tears on the first day of school last week recalled how Santelises encouraged her to move to the larger Waverly Elementary/Middle School this year.

"She taught us so much," Rice said. "We're so far ahead, because she set the tone for us."

Rice said that she was persuaded to leave George Washington Elementary — a school she turned around after a cheating scandal — because Santelises had a vision for her personal growth and the system wants to match strong leaders with schools that need them.

"I feel like she's prepared me for this," Rice said. "I'm a little scared, a little humbled. But she gave me my wings, and now I have to fly. We all do."

Sonja Santelises

Age: 46

Family: Married mother of 4-year-old twin daughters and a 7-year-old daughter

Education: bachelor's degree from Brown University; master's in education administration from Columbia University; doctorate of education in administration, planning and social work from Harvard University; completed post-doctoral work at Harvard's urban superintendents doctoral program.

Career highlights: chief academic officer in Baltimore schools, 2010-present; assistant superintendent of pilot schools and assistant superintendent of teaching and learning/professional development in Boston public schools, 2005-2010; part of original staff of Teach for America, where she was director of professional development and teacher placement, 1989-1992.