Three years ago, Nikkia Rowe emerged as the embodiment of what it meant to be a Baltimore principal. As riots put the perils facing the city’s youth under a national microscope, Renaissance Academy High School was held up as a safe haven for West Baltimore.
But in the last week of this academic year, Rowe was called to school system headquarters and told by the district’s labor relations representative that that was no longer enough.
Rowe is one of several high-profile principals who have been removed or reassigned as part of a leadership shake-up by schools CEO Sonja Santelises this summer. In the coming school year, 16 traditional schools will have new principals, and 12 principals, including Rowe, will leave the district altogether.
While the number of principals affected is similar to previous years, the targeting of schools that have borne the brunt of the city’s challenges -- from unrelenting violence, to leadership turnover, to years of underfunding -- is unusual. Santelises acknowledged that she is extracting a source of stability from several school communities, but she said her decisions reflect a shift in the district’s expectations from its leadership.
She said the shake-up’s goal is to have leaders who specialize in “being able to maintain positive, nurturing environments, but also be able to yield some real tangible movement in student learning experiences and academic outcomes.”
“Each and every day we have kids graduating from the system who deserve a far greater menu of options of what they can do, and what they can be,” Santelises said. “And that has to count at some point.”
Among the most high-profile decisions: Rowe will be replaced at Renaissance by Tammatha Woodhouse, the principal of Excel Academy, an alternative school that lost five students to gun violence in a single year. Santelises also removed Kelvin Bridgers, who took over Frederick Douglass High School the year after its former principal was arrested and the school’s students were blamed for starting the riots following the death of Freddie Gray in 2015.
Santelises declined to comment on Rowe’s removal. But she acknowledged the decision comes as Renaissance has begun to stabilize after a tumultuous three years, which included two proposals to close the school.
Renaissance garnered attention in the spring of 2015, when a mentoring program that Rowe started — Seeds of Promise — was featured in national media outlets as an example of how Baltimore’s schools were managing the gravity of the city’s problems. That fall, a student was fatally stabbed in a classroom by a classmate.
In 2016, the school rallied to graduate one of its largest classes in recent history, primarily black, male students. The accomplishment captured the attention of the Baltimore Ravens, which said Rowe’s leadership inspired them to help fund a multi-million-dollar renovation of the school in the summer of 2017.
Three weeks ago, Rowe was told she would have to leave the building in 48 hours.
“In a district where social-emotional learning has become a pillar of the blueprint, and this word ‘trauma’ is thrown around as jargon, similar to the way data is thrown around, this could have been done in a much more humane way for children,” Rowe said in an interview with The Baltimore Sun.
Rowe’s abrupt departure rattled many in the Renaissance community.
“She is the reasoning behind Renaissance,” said Jazmine Hull, who graduated from Renaissance this spring. She connected with Rowe last year when she had dropped out to get her GED, and Rowe texted her that summer, telling her to come back.
w attending Baltimore City Community College, part of the Mayor’s Scholars Program, which provides tuition assistance for eligible students. Hull resents the notion that her education was somehow not considered up to par for the district.
Renaissance had long struggled, according to a data profile from the school system, which notes declining enrollment and soaring chronic absenteeism rates over the past three years. On standardized exams, more than half of the students couldn’t pass algebra and English. And the school’s 4-year graduation rate dropped to 52 percent in 2017 from 66 percent in 2015, while its dropout rate soared from roughly 5 percent to 34 percent during the same period.
Rowe said her supervisors had raised concerns about attendance rates, especially the dip in the 2016-2017 school year. But she said the district did not take into consideration that officials had repeatedly ignored a rat infestation — emails from Rowe outline these pleas — and the school system had advertised for months that the school was going to close.
Janice Owens, the guardian of one of Rowe’s students, said she believes Rowe is a scapegoat. She knows the kind of students Rowe has had to contend with — including her nephew, Antonio Fortune, who she said was a “nightmare” when he started two years ago. But the school helped him turn around, she said.
“I don’t think the academics was lacking, I think each individual student had their own issues,” Owens said. “She did everything in her power, and a remarkable job.”
Fortune, an 11th-grader, said the next Renaissance principal will have to be patient — and have some extra pocket change. Fortune said Rowe made sure he had a school uniform and was eating.
“I think a principal is somebody that pushes their students to be better by making school fun and making sure our grades are on point,” he said. “And that’s what she did.”
Principals are often chess pieces in reforming urban education, said Rob Helfenbein, associate dean of Loyola University of Maryland’s School of Education. But even the most strategic moves won’t be successful because they don’t solve the underlying issues -- such as underfunding -- that hurt a school’s performance, he said.
And it is well known, he said, that it takes three to five years for a principal to establish a foundation on which to build an academic infrastructure.
Santelises said she rejects “any kind of assertion or idea that somehow we have to choose between high-quality learning experiences and nurturing environments for kids,” she said. “It's a false choice.”
Woodhouse, a highly regarded veteran of the district, said taking on Renaissance will be a new challenge. She said Excel had recovered this past school year, following the series of tragedies the year before, and that both she and Excel could use a new start.
“I believe I’m leaving it in a better place than I found it,” she said.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the school district’s principals’ union, said that he believed many schools have landed strong principals in the shake-up, but that the moves point to a larger problem.
“They are expecting too much of our principals, and then when they don’t produce, they are removed,” Gittings said.
Other reassignments reflect Santelises’ goal of placing the district’s strongest principals in the city’s most struggling schools. For example, Craig Rivers, who led one of the city’s successful flagships, Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, will take over Frederick Douglass. And Nicholas D'Ambrosio, who led the high-performing Roland Park Elementary/Middle for six years, will take on the troubled Academy for College and Career Exploration.
Rivers said that after leading Mervo for nine years, he was excited about the new challenge.
“I didn’t get in this work to be comfortable, I want to make things better,” Rivers said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to keep principals sitting comfortably in easy situations when there are tough situations all around us.”
In many ways, Rowe said, she saw the end of her 18 year-tenure in the district coming. She clashed with the district over its plans to close the school, and was recently chastised when she did not notify them of a visit from Lt. Gov. Boyd K. Rutherford.
After she was removed from Renaissance, she was demoted to a teacher. On July 5 she was told that July 7 would be her last day because she had not submitted her certification paperwork.
She said she will continue to be the school’s fiercest advocate, and wishes Woodhouse well.
"I have full faith in my colleague,” Rowe said. “What holds true with all of us is the day we have the courage to step up to the challenge of leadership, we know our days are numbered because we’ve reduced children to data, numbers, standard deviations."