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Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, right, meets with fifth grader Kimora Williams, 11, at her Language Arts class at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary. Santelises received a second four-year contract Tuesday.
Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, right, meets with fifth grader Kimora Williams, 11, at her Language Arts class at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary. Santelises received a second four-year contract Tuesday. (Kenneth K. Lam / Baltimore Sun)

The Baltimore City school board voted Tuesday night to approve another four-year contract for its schools chief, Sonja Santelises, who has led the city school system through a period of rising test scores and stability.

Santelises is only the second school CEO in the past 23 years to be offered another contract. She is the ninth leader since a restructuring of the system in 1997, and has earned praise from parents, school principals and city leaders.

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“We know it is early, but we wanted to be certain that we were ready,” said Linda Chinnia, chairman of the city school board. “We know that we have a lot of work to do, but we do think we have the right team on board.”

Unlike some of her predecessors who focused on structural changes in the school system, Santelises has made improving instruction in the classroom her priority. She has changed the curriculum, turning to a reading and math curriculum that had proved effective in other school systems.

Chinnia credited Santelises for providing excellent instruction and with being “transparent and positive about what the system needs to do to improve. She has involved the community.”

Santelises said the school system has laid a foundation for improvement during her first 3½ years. Now officials must show results through student performance.

“Now we are going for the big prize and that is systemic chunks of achievement,” she said. “This was ground-laying work. It is now, ‘How do we increase achievement?’”

Santelises will earn $325,000, the highest salary ever earned by a Maryland superintendent, according to state data, and up from her current salary of $298,000. She also will have a car allowance and other benefits.

Baltimore County’s school superintendent Darryl L. Williams, who moved from an administrative job in Montgomery County to be in charge of the county school system, is earning $285,000 in his first year.

Although Santelises was forced to close schools with little or no heat in the winter of 2018, her tenure has been remarkably calamity-free compared with some of her many predecessors. In the past two decades, the school system has seen crippling financial problems, enormous principal turnover, stagnant or dropping test scores, dramatic enrollment declines and low graduation rates.

More recently, the workings of the school system appear to be improving. It has received good marks for financial accountability, and has seen larger jumps in test scores than many school systems in the state. Scores have risen for two years in a row, while scores in Baltimore County have stagnated or dropped.

The school system still faces significant problems, including low student achievement and a large gap between the test scores of white students and black students. The school system’s enrollment continues to shrink and it must close schools to operate efficiently. And an overhaul of school facilities would cost several billion dollars.

Santelises, 52, was first the system’s chief academic officer during the seven-year tenure of Andres Alonso, who led Baltimore schools until 2013. Santelises then went to the Education Trust, a nonprofit educational group based in Washington, but continued to live in Baltimore and her children attend the city’s public schools.

She has said several times that she does not want to become the superintendent in another large urban school system, but rather wants to stay in Baltimore.

“The work isn’t finished,” she said. “I think we have laid some good groundwork."

Most large districts that are showing signs of improving are places where there has been stable top and middle management leadership, including Chicago and the District of Columbia.

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She still sees large problems ahead. She is worried by the low literacy rates and believes that work needs to be done to support teachers and principals as they try to improve instruction. The school system has begun to expand access to gifted-and-talented and advanced academics, but there are still large numbers of students who can’t easily go to schools that have those programs.

Santelises said she is staying, in part, because she has a supportive board that is pushing her to achieve more changes.

She said she is haunted by graduates who tell her they are not prepared for work but also fortified by those who have succeeded. Santelises had lunch recently with a student in his first year at Brown University, who told her he feels he belongs there. And there was the moment she spent in front of a classroom watching a boy whose behavior had been turned around — he had been turning over bookshelves — now sitting in the front row eager to learn and asking questions.

“Those kids are no less talented than my own,” and should have the same opportunities, she said. “That is why I do it.”

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