Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises talks link between poverty, achievement

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
City school chief backs community schools and more enriching curriculum.

Baltimore City Schools CEO Sonja Santelises believes schools in pockets of concentrated poverty will improve if she can provide them with better teachers, offer their students a richer curriculum and leverage the sometimes unrecognized strengths of people within their communities.

Santelisis spoke as part of a panel of educators at the Johns Hopkins University's School of Education Thursday afternoon. The school is holding a two-day celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Coleman Report, a 700-page landmark publication that shaped education research and school reform for decades.

Santelises, who took over as CEO in July, said she is already looking at some of the policy changes that could help improve education in the city. Some schools have far more students living in poverty than others, she said, and when administrators looked carefully at those schools they found that they also have the highest number of inexperienced teachers — those in their first or second year of teaching.

"The higher the concentration of poverty, the more likely a student in the community is to have new teachers," Santelises said. While she hasn't yet developed a plan to change that, she said she will be looking at what other school districts across the nation have successfully tried.

The conference centered on the degree to which socio-economic factors control outcomes for students, and what can be done to improve schools with high numbers of low-income students.

The Coleman Report, which was so controversial that its release was timed for the 4th of July weekend, said that family and neighborhoods had a greater influence over the quality of a child's education than the resources or the facilities of the school a child attended.

High levels of racial segregation and socio-economic factors — including the education level of a child's parents and whether they lived in poverty — accounted for a great deal of the gap in achievement between white and black children, according to the report.

Santelises also said she wants schools to be the geographic centers for the community, places "that can serve as incubators of people and ideas." For too many years, parents and people in the community have felt shut out of schools, she said.

She pointed to New Song Academy in Sandtown-Winchester, which has been working for more than a decade to give parents a voice in their school and to help the community address long standing problems that go along with concentrated poverty.

In schools like New Song, she said, academic achievement will be seen as a victory for the entire community. New Song's middle school test scores in English on the recent state tests stand out as particularly high, she said.

Schools have often tried to increase achievement by giving students less time to play, learn to be creative, read challenging stories or be exposed to music and art, Santelises said. But it is those students living in poverty who have the least exposure to those enriching experiences and need them most.

Making schools attractive to working and middle class families with choices, she said, will mean including those enriching experiences.

James Coleman, the report's author, was on the Hopkins faculty at the time it was written. At the time he wrote the report, segregation was dramatic across the region. Today, the average city school is 97 percent black.

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