Baltimore schools' interim CEO has 'passion with a punch'

Tisha Edwards, Baltimore City schools interim CEO

In walks Tisha Edwards, a parade of teenagers in her wake.

The conference room in Baltimore school headquarters is full of staff and community stakeholders there to tell the new interim schools CEO what she wants to know. But she introduces the half-dozen "special guests" who will tell her what she needs to hear.

"I feel like students give me the best advice, because they're not on the payroll," she tells the work group on the student dress code. "They'll tell me how it really is."

That up-front style, many say, has made Edwards a competent if sometimes divisive figure since she became former schools CEO Andrés Alonso's right-hand woman four years ago.

As his chief of staff, she worked behind the scenes to orchestrate details of the largest reforms the district had seen in decades. But she also was the facilitator of the resulting shake-ups, and has taken heat for the fallout.

"I think we all agree that we all have benefited from the vision of the board and Alonso and the take-no-prisoners approach to move ahead," says Tom Wilcox, president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, who has known Edwards for more than a decade.

"But someone's had to keep the house in order, do the inside jobs and do the dirty work. And Tisha has been a tirelessly loyal actor on behalf of Dr. Alonso on the one hand, and attentive to the many people and the factions that occur internally as all of this action occurred."

She has drawn support from the school system's major unions, though she was called a "bully" in a widely circulated anonymous letter protesting her appointment, a rare public criticism of her leadership style. Edwards resents that word in the workplace, just as she resents when girls with strong personalities are called "bossy."

"I am going to push you and make you to take responsibility, just like I have to, for what happens to children in this system," she says. "I'm not trying to be a bully. But I am trying to get results, and that's not always going to happen in a love letter."

Edwards, 42, signed a $225,000 contract to begin serving as interim CEO on July 1 while the city school board conducts a national search for a permanent leader.

She acknowledges that her self-described style — "passion with a punch" — will need to be refined.

"I've got to figure out how to have passion and soften my punch," she says. "That's going to be a work in progress for me."

The compassion of a social worker, the purpose of a lawyer and a calling to improve the lives of children led Edwards to public education. She came to the system as a high school principal, a position she believes she was hired for initially because she wasn't a career educator.

"I react in this work like I'm somebody's momma," she says. "And that can be a good thing on some days. And a bad thing on some days. But every day, anything I do, I do because I love children."

Alonso says the strengths he saw when he hired her — her intuition about how schools work, how the central office works, and what parents and kids want in schools — will be her greatest assets.

And her "success will stem from the fact that she will not do the job to keep the job," says Alonso, who led the district for six years. "She will do the job to do right for kids."

While union, political and community leaders have campaigned for her to become the permanent appointee, Edwards said she's hoping only to add "successful transition" to her resume.

And that's no small task. She has a new curriculum, a high-stakes evaluation system and a landmark plan to overhaul school facilities to set in motion.

"It's only one year, so I have to be realistic about what I can accomplish," she says. "And what I can accomplish is the work we've been doing."

She pauses to think for a moment.

"And I want to get out of audit hell," she says with a laugh, referring to two audits released in the past year that have raised questions about fiscal management in the school system.

Though she's not looking to overhaul Alonso's reforms, she wants to make her mark on them.

As the work group meeting on dress codes comes to a close, the students say the biggest challenge to the uniform policy is that they often can't afford what is expected of them.

Edwards nods, then doles out a dose of empathy and accountability.

"As a principal, I have a problem if you can't afford a uniform but you have a Louis Vuitton case for your iPad," she says. "But the whole child piece — we're losing that, and I want to get that back."

Cue Executive Order No. 1.

"I would like to start a campaign fund for school uniforms," she announces to her staff. "My goal is to raise a half-million dollars, at least. I'd like to get that set up by the fall."

Smiles creep up on some faces. Eyes widen on others.

"We're over by three minutes," she says, standing up abruptly, with a smile. "Anything else?"

Edwards' life and leadership style have been shaped by being born to a 17-year-old mother and raised in a strict household by strong, Southern women.

"My mother ... had big dreams but low expectations," Edwards says. "She would say she wanted me to go to college, but she was fine as long as I didn't get pregnant. So anything in between was workable because she didn't even know what was possible for me."

She's been molded, she said, by other people seeing more in her than she ever did in herself.

Brenda Wilson said she knew as soon as she gave birth to Edwards in Meridian, Miss., that her daughter's future was never in her hands.

"She was due Feb. 9, and she decided she wanted to come Feb. 14, because that was a special day," recalls Wilson, alluding to Valentine's Day. "I figured out at an early age with her that she was going to do things her own way."

Still, Wilson was determined to teach Edwards and her younger sister, who is now a teacher in Mississippi, that there were consequences for their actions. "The biggest part I played in allowing her to become what God wanted her to be was to instill accountability," she says.

Wilson described Edwards as competitive, independent, hardworking, "mouthy," kindhearted and wise beyond her years. Her commanding presence began to develop in preschool when, as the self-appointed greeter in her grandmother's day care, she took parents by the hand and sparked conversation when they dropped off their children.

She was educated in Catholic school until the sixth grade before making what her mother said was a tough transition to public school. Edwards had to balance the distractions of being a teenager with her mother's rules — most of which were geared toward her not getting pregnant.

Yet for as much as she and her daughter butted heads, Wilson never worried about Edwards' academics. She graduated from Meridian High School with an impressive transcript.

Edwards was excited to go to college. Her mother, just as excited for her to leave, packed her car the day after graduation.

But after stints at two colleges, Edwards found herself a young wife, pregnant with her first son at age 23. She said that "scared her straight," because all of the men in her family had taken a bad path.

She also felt that in the relationship with her sons' father — their divorce was finalized this year — she was one step behind because he was college-educated and she wasn't.

"I realized that while I wasn't a teenage mom, I was an uneducated mom," Edwards said. "I wanted to get out of the cycle in my family, where women were leaders and providers of the family but not college-educated. And I wanted my boys to emerge as providers and leaders in their own families. So I had to do something different with my life to make that happen."

She earned her bachelor's degree in social work from Georgia State University in 1998, at age 27.

This fall, her son Nicholas will begin his senior year at Morgan State University, while her son Nevan will begin his freshman year at Polytechnic Institute.

Edwards' introduction to the challenges facing youths came as she worked in the Fulton County Juvenile Court in Georgia, where she saw young black men confined, restricted, limited.

"It felt like slavery," she says. "And I noticed that for every kid that's coming through this court system, the one thing that kept coming up with all of them was disengagement in public education. And it was tearing these families apart."

Edwards began searching for a program that could allow her to do social work but also sharpen her writing, speaking and analytical skills. She enrolled at the University of Maryland, Baltimore for graduate programs in social work and law.

Arriving in Baltimore in 1998, she was "devastated" by the poverty she saw. In Meridian, she had never seen someone asking for money on the street or high on drugs in public.

"I was poor, but I had never lived the way the kids in this city lived it," she says. "These children know it, live it and are traumatized in a way that I had not experienced. That freaked me out, gave me purpose."

While in school, Edwards worked with Empower Baltimore Management Corp., a nonprofit that assists neighborhoods with at-risk populations. She served as special assistant to the organization's then-CEO, Diane Bell McKoy, for a year and as chief operating officer from 2001 to 2003.

Bell-McKoy, now the CEO of Associated Black Charities, remembers a compassionate and committed young person. But she quickly saw how education was Edwards' calling.

"She came to me with lots of energy, lots of passion, wanting to make a difference," Bell-McKoy says. "She comes with that kind of energy around wanting something different for families and children."

Edwards joined a group that applied to open a school in 2003 and became founding principal of Baltimore Freedom Academy in Southeast Baltimore.

Under her leadership, the public charter school made progress and suffered setbacks. Three months into its first year, seven students had left, and staff members began to quit. Administrators had to institute a points-and-rewards system to encourage good behavior in a school that sought a loosely structured environment predicated on accountability.

Ashley Wilder, part of the school's first graduating class in 2007, recalls a strong leader whose tough love helped her graduate fourth in her class.

She called Edwards the day before she was supposed to leave for a summer engineering program at the University of Pittsburgh to say she was not going.

"She said, 'Oh, yes, you are,'" recalls Wilder, a recent Towson graduate. "If I didn't go there, I really don't know where I would be now. She didn't pick on you, but made sure you knew you weren't going to be put on a pedestal just because you were a student. You would be held accountable, you would reach your full potential."

Ten years after opening the school, Edwards helped make the recommendation this year to close it for poor academic performance. She says the decision was one of "the hardest things I ever had to do, but the right thing to do for kids."

She says she left in 2007 at odds with the charter school's board.

"I'd gone from a place where I could do what I thought I needed to do for kids to a place where that autonomy was becoming really, really narrow," she says. "That's an example of adults getting in the way."

The following January, she began working as Alonso's special assistant.

As much as Edwards pushes, she appreciates being pushed back.

In a recent meeting about schools in a South Baltimore community, Edwards and a staff member engage in a heated debate — the kind where one interrupts the other to ask, "Can I finish?"

As she walks into her office, Edwards says, "As tough as that was, I respect her more than someone who just sat there, nodded their head and said, 'Uh-huh.' Because as much as we fundamentally disagree, she was standing up for what she thought was right for children."

Edwards has been involved in a number of heated discussions over the past four years amid shake-ups that included reorganizations, the closing and opening of more than two dozen schools, and a $1 billion facilities plan.

As tough as she can be — on herself, adults and children — Edwards says she sees an opportunity to re-energize the district.

In a meeting about student promotion and retention policies, she tells staffers that "data has become the devil — it's killing morale."

She ordered a notification system to be put in place next year to alert parents and principals when students are at risk, rather than presenting general statistics for schools with the most failing students.

"I love data — I've been trained by the data king," she says, referring to Alonso. "But I value conversation and consultation."

Edwards says she's not entering her tenure "obsessing about test scores," because while she's taking over one of the lowest-performing school systems in the state, it's in transition.

The district is embarking on a more rigorous curriculum that will test teachers and students. Principal and teacher evaluations that began tying performance to compensation three years ago have yet to have an impact in instruction.

"It's going to get harder before it gets better," she says. "There's not a lot I can do about that today.

"What I can do something about is getting people excited about the work again. And I think if I can do that … the test scores will work themselves out in the long run."

Tisha Edwards

Age: 42

Hometown: Meridian, Miss.

Residence: Baltimore

Personal: Divorced; mother of two sons: Nicholas, 19, a senior at Morgan State University, and Nevan, 13, a freshman at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute

Current salary: $225,000 as Baltimore schools interim CEO for one year, beginning July 1

Work highlights: Baltimore schools chief of staff and special assistant to the CEO, 2008-2013; founding principal, Baltimore Freedom Academy, 2003-2007; chief operating officer and special assistant to the CEO, Empower Baltimore Management Corp., 2000-2003; program coordinator, Fulton County (Ga.) Juvenile Court, 1997-1998.

Education: J.D., University of Maryland law school, 2001; master's, University of Maryland School of Social Work, 2000; bachelor's, Georgia State University, 1998.