Sonja Santelises wandered into a private room of a Baltimore funeral home a few weeks ago where she found a group of black teenage boys mourning the murder of their 15-year-old friend.
Santelises, the incoming CEO of city schools, recalled that moment to a roomful of hundreds of rapt fellow educators on Monday, describing the "despondency," "blankness" and "layers of hurt" on the boys faces.
"I walked out, and said to myself, 'What in God's name are we doing?" she told the crowd.
The question was as much a somber reflection on the state of the city, as it was a impassioned call to action in Santelises' first address on the 'State of the Schools.'
The annual address kicks off the school year and charges city principals with producing better academic outcomes this year. Santelises also told the group that this year, perhaps more than ever, the school system's role in changing childrens' lives would transcend the classroom.
Instead of presenting the usual test scores and suspension data that usually anchors the annual address, Santelises used a city neighborhood map to illustrate the hard, every day, real life challenges faced by students that affect how they learn and whether teachers are able to reach them: the number of shootings per 1,000 residents, the number of adults on parole and probation, the percentage of children living in poverty, the percentage of mothers receiving prenatal care.
"This is about more than just, 'Can we get a score up to get somebody off of our backs?" Santelises said. "This is about who will live, who will die. This is about who will be able to fulfill all that they are called to. This work is about building a generation."
Monica Dailey, principal of Forest Park High School, said Santelises' address showed she understood that educators' jobs are not one-dimensional.
"She did a great job of being reflective, providing both a broad and narrow perspective in emphasizing the urgency – that the realities of our children must be temporary and it takes the efforts of our extended community to ensure this generation has an improved and sustainable tomorrow," Dailey said.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the union representing school administrators, said he believed Santelises "spoke from the heart," and that he's going to try and trust her pledge to better support school leaders.
"I saw a lot of young faces, new faces in the crowd looking around with questions in their eyes,' Gittings said. "Providing support is very important for principals to be transparent and take responsibility."
City Councilman Brandon Scott, who attended Santelises' address, said he was encouraged to hear Santelises emphasized more collaboration between the school district and city agencies. For instance, Santelises indicated she wants to bolster mental health support for students in schools to take pressure off of teachers.
"I am very happy to have a CEO who wants to connect the dots and who understands that the city school system doesn't operate in a vacuum," Scott said. "You can't educate a person you don't know."
Santelises also outlined her priorities for the year: establishing relationships with communities and city agencies, rebuilding teaching and learning goals for educators and increasing the capacity at the central office to better support schools. She said school system leaders at every level would be expected to lead with transparency, trust and authenticity.
She also highlighted unsatisfactory literacy performance in recent years – she reminded educators that literacy sends youths into the prison pipeline– and highlighted schools in poor neighborhoods that were defying the odds. "Let's use the data to inform our work, not build excuses for why it won't work," she said.