Sonja Santelises, the Baltimore schools CEO, describes how the unrest motivated her to take the schools' top job. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun video)
The morning after being named the next CEO of Baltimore City public schools, Sonja Brookins Santelises spoke authoritatively about building the "systems and supports" needed to turn around the beleaguered system.
Then, asked about what's needed to help the "underprivileged" students in Baltimore, her face drops and voice cracks. The word is off-putting to her.
"For all the ground they need to make up," she said of low-income students in the city, "they deserve the same respect my babies get every day when they walk into school."
As Santelises takes the helm of the state's fourth-largest school system — with one of the largest minority populations — she brings with her a deeply held conviction that poor, black children are too often treated as if they are intellectually inferior.
It's a conviction forged by a father who overcame a childhood in Jim Crow Mississippi to become a chemist, and by her own Ivy League education that began at Brown University, where she was perceived as an "affirmative action baby."
Santelises, 48, will be the fifth superintendent to lead the district in a decade. During that time, a raft of reforms have aimed at raising student academic performance in the district, which ranks at the bottom of large urban school districts in the nation. Some educators and observers say they hope the hiring of Santelises, who previously served as the school system's chief academic officer, signals a renewed commitment to improving student achievement.
Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, who has gained a national reputation in education, called Santelises "an innovator with the commitment to see big ideas through" who has "devoted her career to changing the status quo."
Santelises, who will step into her new role July 1, takes over at a tumultuous time. Standardized test scores have plunged, enrollment is declining, the budget is strapped and charter schools are waging a legal battle against the district over funding.
It's a big job for someone who doesn't have experience running a school system. She will have to expand her skills as a classroom innovator to manage a $1.2 billion budget, more than 8,000 people and the nitty-gritty details of making the buses run on time, fixing leaking roofs and ensuring that a teacher shows up in every classroom.
She also must overcome fallout from the secrecy surrounding her selection.
The school board conducted the search for a new superintendent without telling the public and key state lawmakers who were seeking input on any effort to replace embattled schools chief Gregory Thornton. To guard against public disclosure, the board tapped an unnamed private company to pay the search firm. That way, the board wouldn't have to publicly vote on a district-paid contract.
Santelises dismissed the notion that the controversy would become a distraction, saying she would reach out to critics of the selection process and work on building those relationships.
Santelises admits to being an "elitist" and says she expects students to meet high expectations.
During her tenure as chief academic officer, she introduced new curriculum aligned with the more rigorous Common Core standards earlier than the rest of the state, and introduced it to prekindergartners when critics said children that young weren't ready for it. A couple of years later, the city's kindergartners were performing on par with those in Montgomery County.
"We talk so much about poverty, but yet we continue to give children in poverty impoverished learning experiences," she said. "And then we blame them, and we blame their families for why we can't teach them."
But she also instituted a grading policy adopted by other high-performing school districts that required students to receive a score of at least 50 percent, which roiled teachers because students could be absent for half of the school year and still pass a class. She also rejected requests from elementary school parents to establish a gifted track for their first-graders.
Still, some educators said they believe Santelises respects them and their profession and has a deep knowledge of instruction. Lorna Hanley, principal of Montebello Elementary Middle School and a 17-year veteran of the city school system, said she and other principals were contemplating leaving the district. But now, she said, they are "pushing the pause button."
Hanley said she expects Santelises will have a clearly defined plan and will provide the needed support from the central office, though the principal also hopes the school board and parents won't subject her to "ridiculous expectations and timelines."
"We all need to step back, take a deep breath and trust her leadership," Hanley said. "Our school system — just like our city — is in recovery right now, recuperating from years of neglect, mismanagement and self-inflected wounds."
When Santelises resigned from her post in Baltimore shortly after CEO Andrés Alonso's resignation in 2013, she went to work for The Education Trust, a Washington, D.C., policy think tank.
She stayed in her North Baltimore neighborhood and continued to send her three daughters to the city's Tunbridge Public Charter School, where she said they have been well-prepared in a nurturing environment.
Next year, she is transferring her oldest daughter to the private Garrison Forest School, to give the 10-year-old who loves science more hands-on learning experiences. She said the decision was made in the best interest of her daughter's learning style, and before she considered the schools CEO job. She also said hopes to provide that kind of experiential learning to the city's 84,000 children.
"We struggled with it, but in the end, I'm her mother and I've made this decision with my husband," Santelises said. "I didn't make this decision with the whole city of Baltimore."
Melanie Hood-Wilson, the parent of two city school students, recalled Santelises' vision for student learning "to be exactly what I want for my kids — learning in an interactive environment that allowed them to express opinions and apply their content knowledge in a useful way."
"Things seem more far more broken than when Sonja was last with us," Hood-Wilson said. "She has a lot to repair before she can begin to implement her vision for our schools. I hope the community and the families will work with her and that she will embrace us as a resource."
But some worry that Santelises' resume has been focused more on academics and less on management.
Santelises began her career as director of professional development and teacher placement with Teach for America in New York in 1989, and then taught at a year-round school that she helped found in Brooklyn, N.Y. She also served as executive director of the Algebra Project, a New York-based nonprofit that works to improve mathematics skills among low-income minorities.
Before she came to Baltimore, Santelises held several positions over a decade in the Boston public school system, including assistant superintendent for autonomous, charter-like schools, and assistant superintendent for professional development.
Although she was hired by Alonso, the broad changes he championed rarely included what was being taught in the classroom. Santelises was often viewed as working independently of the radical schools chief.
During her career, Santelises has championed some ideas that have become hot-button issues locally and nationally, including teacher evaluations tied to student performance, standardized testing and charter schools.
Helen Atkinson, who leads the Teacher's Democracy Project, an initiative in UMBC's doctoral program, questioned Santelises' work for The Education Trust, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She wondered how her work with an advocate for the corporatization of schools would serve her in a public school system.
"There are some of us who will be asking pointed questions about her selection of a Gates-funded policy think tank in D.C. as a place to prepare for a superintendent seat," Atkinson said, adding that she doesn't know how to distinguish between Santelises' beliefs and the stances advocated by her previous employers.
Atkinson said that while Santelises is very knowledgeable about curriculum, "what she lacks is access to the real conditions that people face in schools."
Jason Botel, executive director of MarylandCAN, an education advocacy group, said that while he's "excited" for Santelises to take on the role, "she is going to need some real expertise on her team as well as partners outside the system."
The school board is scheduled to vote on Santelises' four-year contract May 10. Her $298,000 annual salary would make Santelises the highest-paid superintendent in the state.
School board President Marnell Cooper said Santelises was not offered the superintendent job three years ago when the board sought to replace Alonso. This time around, she beat out eight other candidates the board interviewed.
"Given her opportunity to work with other districts around the country, and to work on the policy aspect of things, it makes her a better candidate than she was three years ago," Cooper said. "We can't have the merry-go-round of CEOs, but we think, based on everyone we interviewed ... we're not getting someone on the CEO train."
At The Education Trust, Santelises has been delving into data, analyzing policies and writing reports. Kati Haycock, CEO of the nonprofit, said that what Santelises brought to the table was an "unshakable belief in the capacity of every child, no matter how poor."
She recalled a recent meeting where policy experts gathered to review "socio-emotional" factors that could be used to measure schools. Haycock said Santelises' hackles were raised when "student self-control" was proposed.
Haycock said Santelises wasn't willing "to get sucked into the damaged-child narrative."
Santelises has no grand proclamations yet for what she wants to achieve in Baltimore. But already she resents the notion that she has to work a miracle to educate an overwhelmingly poor, black school district.
"There are many who are asking, 'Is it possible?' That's not the question that keeps me up at night," she snaps. "I have many examples that show me it can be done."
Santelises is the wife of a Dominican immigrant who arrived in the U.S. speaking no English and is now an entrepreneur. And she is the daughter of parents who grew up in the Jim Crow South and made their way to Peabody, Mass., just north of Boston, where they raised two daughters who would attend Ivy League universities and hold doctorates.
Even in the era of Jim Crow, parents were able to provide a "cocoon-like existence" for their children and fiercely believed nobody "can take what's in your head," Santelises said. Even then, she notes, black parents were able to educate their children to become lawyers, doctors, politicians.
"If under those conditions, they could do that — and now those same conditions overpower us — it's fundamentally unacceptable to who I am," she said. "And that's what I tap into here in Baltimore."
Santelises' mother was a former social worker who headed corporate community relations at Polaroid. Her father, Jackson Andrew Brookins, said he taught his daughter to focus less on circumstances and more on outcomes. He recalled how his daughter came to him in junior high school and said she needed to leave her public school because she didn't think she was getting a proper education.
"She didn't know what she was going to be. All she knew was she was going to be somebody — and she wasn't getting what was required," he said with a chuckle.
Santelises excelled at Bishop Fenwick High School, a private school where she said she did best when she had good relationships with teachers who pushed her to do better.
She attended Brown before Columbia and Harvard universities.
"The one thing that's not in Sonja's vocabulary is 'fail,'" Brookins said. "When she looks at the job, she's not looking at the challenges, she's looking at an outcome that's going to come as a result of whatever she's going to do."
Santelises said she is ready to seize a "moment" in Baltimore since the death of Freddie Gray from spinal injuries suffered in police custody sparked protests and rioting — and a citywide conversation about social ills. Part of that conversation has been about what students need to be successful.
"I still think, with all of this attention on Baltimore, we can show that this is still a place where excellent schooling — for low-income kids, for kids of color, for all kids — can still take place," she said. "That this is not just a system with outliers. And I think we're at a crossroads."
Santelises is still building a transition team that will help her re-acclimate to the district in the next seven weeks. Until then, she wants to make one thing clear:
"I'm not a savior," she said. "I'm not stupid enough, or naive enough, to think I know everything or that I can save anybody. I'm just here to do the work."
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this article.
Education: Bachelor's degree in English literature and international relations, Brown University; M.A. in education administration, Columbia University Teacher's College; doctorate in education administration, planning and social policy, Harvard University
•Current: Vice president of K-12 policy and practice, The Education Trust
•2010: Chief academic officer, Baltimore City public schools
•2000: Senior associate, Focus on Results Inc.
•1999: Intern, assistant superintendent of pilot schools, acting deputy superintendent for teaching and learning, assistant superintendent for professional development, Boston Public Schools