Sonja Santelises may be the highest-ranking education official in Baltimore and oversee a billion-dollar budget, but as the school year wrapped up she spent a morning in the trenches: a kindergarten lesson about Antarctica.
Santelises immerses herself in the nitty-gritty of what’s taught in Baltimore public school classrooms, even amid budget deficits and infrastructure crises. During that kindergarten visit to Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary, she drilled down on whether 5-year-olds really grasped the definition of the word “thick” and understood how it described an iceberg.
As she begins her fourth year as the school system’s CEO, Santelises, 51, has emerged as a stabilizing force in Baltimore at a tumultuous time for the city.
Just 24 hours before she visited Rodwell and celebrated the children’s progress, Santelises led a memorial service in front of the district’s North Avenue headquarters to honor the 12 students shot and killed during the last year.
“We can’t just fixate on what’s horrible,” Santelises said in an interview. “It’s our responsibility to give kids skills, experiences and relationships that help them see and feel and experience their own agency. I will not take that away from them.”
Since her appointment, the city has seen widespread instability in other institutions, including turnover at the top of its health, transportation and housing departments. The police department is on its fourth police commissioner in two years — one was fired after a spike in crime and another is now in prison for tax fraud. Mayor Catherine Pugh resigned in May amid questions over her business dealings.
Santelises’ contract is up for renewal at the end of next school year, and many hope the revolving door of superintendents might stop. She, too, hopes she will stay.
“Dr. Santelises came at a time of great instability and returned confidence to the school system,” said state Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat. “Certainly there have been challenges along the way, but I think she’s one of the most talented superintendents in the country.”
Some progress is evident as she ends three years at the helm of a school system of 80,000 children, about 80 percent of whom are black. Her first year brought a massive budget deficit and layoffs. The second came with facilities failings that generated viral photos of kids shivering in freezing classrooms.
By year three the district announced that the city’s graduation rate saw its largest gain in more than five years and Baltimore students’ standardized test scores rose significantly in both math and English for the first time in nearly a decade. Santelises said she was encouraged but wasn’t “holding a parade” over the improving scores. How could she when, still, fewer than one in five Baltimore kids passed? When the gap between black children and white children’s scores were still so wide?
“We have so much further to go, my God, do we,” Santelises said. “But we are so not where we once were.”
At the heart of her work is the belief that kids of color deserve to be educated and challenged and inspired in the classroom. The daughter of African American parents raised in the Jim Crow South, she has three Ivy League degrees.
Santelises knows that for many of the city’s kids, a quality education is the difference between life and death, incarceration and freedom.
Their hardships keep her up at night and drive her deeper into her Christian faith. She comes from a family of preachers, something she offers up as an explanation for the passionate speeches she’s wont to give during school board meetings and executive leadership sessions. It’s not uncommon for these extemporaneous monologues to generate murmurs of “amen.”
Community members say she gets real about the issues, translating “education-ese” while offering tales from her life and the lives of family members — a husband who waited tables to pay for college, a father who taught her the tradition of black excellence. She calls out historical inequities, including ones perpetuated by the school system.
She’s not without critics, including Gov. Larry Hogan, who has faulted her handling of maintenance issues, and parents upset by her push to close more than a dozen schools, often anchors in their neighborhoods. Others say her central office staff can be slow to respond to reports of bullying in classrooms and violence in the hallways.
Looking back on her first three years as CEO, she says substantial work has been done. Still, “there’s an urgency for me here that will not be fully satisfied.”
‘The core work’
Santelises says she was clear on her philosophy when making a funding pitch to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
“We’re not going after the shiny new thing,” she recalls. “Our work is putting high-quality teaching and learning in place for kids. Either fund that or don’t fund that.”
Gates bought in, awarding the district an $11 million grant to support its literacy efforts.
Teresa Rivero, a senior program officer with the foundation, said they were impressed with the vision the school system laid out.
“I’m always reminded talking to system leaders … how many things every day are coming at them,” Rivero said. “What stands out is Dr. Santelises’ commitment to the students from Baltimore City schools and her ability to focus when there’s so much that needs to be done.”
While other area superintendents have gravitated toward flashier programs — such as free laptops for every student — Santelises’ vision is more foundational.
Her signature initiative is the Blueprint for Success. It’s a three-pronged approach to improving the city’s education system, with an emphasis on literacy, staff leadership and student wholeness — recognizing the necessity of dealing with kids’ needs beyond the ones in the classroom.
Schools can apply to be “intensive learning sites” based on these priorities. Selected schools receive additional resources, like an extra reading instructor or a specially outfitted room where students can go to calm down if they have a rough day. She’s looking to identify sites across the city, especially in neighborhoods with a history of disinvestment.
“We need to get good at the core work,” Santelises said.
She was the district’s chief academic officer from 2010 to 2013, then returned in 2016 as chief executive. Six months into the job, Santelises announced that she might have to lay off 1,000 people to close a $130 million gap driven by declining enrollment, among other problems.
She worked with legislators to help fill the hole, though the district still laid off 115 people, including the first classroom teachers to lose their jobs in a decade.
In her second year, facilities problems grabbed the headlines. Santelises inherited a school system with a nearly $3 billion maintenance backlog.
When heating systems failed in about 60 schools, photos of shivering children in classrooms again tested the city’s spirit and Santelises’ leadership.
“It was an incredibly difficult situation and she did a really good job of respecting people’s anger, of honoring their anger and recognizing that people had a right to be angry,” said Cristina Duncan Evans, a former teacher. “But then she put this immediate crisis in the context of decades of disinvestment.”
It also set up a fight with the Republican governor, who has demanded more transparency and accountability.
When schools had to cancel classes the next fall because buildings were then too hot, Hogan publicly rebuked Santelises for not installing air-conditioning in all the schools she promised and failing to use allotted state dollars to get the work done.
She has fielded other criticisms since then — about her recommendations to close several low-performing schools, especially charters, and to reassign a handful of high-profile principals. Recently, some questioned her decision to appoint a principal to Paul Laurence Dunbar High School who had previously worked at Ballou High School, which was at the center of a graduation scandal in Washington, D.C.
Santelises said the fact that Yetunde Reeves was not formally sanctioned by District of Columbia Public Schools — although she was placed on administrative leave and not brought back to Ballou — contributed to the decision. She said Reeves had made a career out of leading large urban high schools like Dunbar.
“Ethical concerns were addressed,” Santelises said.
Whether at North Avenue, City Hall or the State House, Santelises relishes her role defending the school system to critics. She was once hesitant about the political maneuvering required by the CEO job, but not any longer. “You want to take a swipe?” she says. “I've got the capital to take the swipe.”
In a fifth-grade classroom at Calvin M. Rodwell, Santelises squatted in her heels so she was eye-level with a young boy doing his reading assignment on a carpet in the corner.
It’s kind of challenging, the boy told Santelises, explaining that because the characters live in New York, the story includes words from a dialect he doesn’t understand.
“Can you find me an example of a word that’s a little challenging?” Santelises asked him. He pointed to two: “Chopin’s waltz.”
Ah, she explained, Chopin was a composer and he created music for an elegant dance called the waltz.
The moment showed why she wants schools to focus on expanding kids’ knowledge bases. Just drilling the skill of reading won’t help students understand the meaning of the word “waltz.”
In an op-ed last year, Santelises wrote that an audit of the district’s coursework generated “heartbreaking” results. Baltimore kids were taught much about slavery but little about the Harlem Renaissance. Their lessons were frequently based on low standards.
Since then, the district launched a pilot unit based on Baltimore’s history — and not just the bad stuff.
And a rigorous new English curriculum was adopted in elementary and middle schools.
At Rodwell, some teachers said they worried that the curriculum was too hard and structured. But by the end of the year, the school’s literacy coach told Santelises, kindergartners were writing six-sentence essays. “I see the magic this is making happen,” she said.
Santelises wants that “magic” to start showing in every Baltimore school, regardless of ZIP code.
As she looks to continue her work, she and her husband recently started exercising three mornings a week. The couple decided a condition of her staying in the high-pressure job is that she watch out for her health.
“I want to go as long as I can, as hard as I can,” said Santelises, who came to Baltimore as the fifth superintendent in a decade. She gets calls from other jurisdictions, but says Baltimore is the only place she’d serve as superintendent.
She has a vested interest in the system’s success.
At the end of the school year, Santelises attended Tunbridge Public Charter School’s Family Olympics. She wasn’t there as CEO — she came to cheer on her twins, who are students there. Santelises went through an obstacle course, and helped the “adult” team win a victory over the students in tug-of-war. (Her oldest daughter attends a private school.)
At a recent community event, a woman sought her advice for selecting a new school. Santelises told her: “I’m taking off my CEO hat and talking to you mama to mama.”
Longtime education advocate Kim Trueheart says the perspective Santelises gains from having young kids in a city school is vital.