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Dear Sonja Santelises: Don’t go to D.C., Baltimore needs you | COMMENTARY

Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises chat during a tour at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy on the first day of the school last year.
Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison and Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises chat during a tour at Vivien T. Thomas Medical Arts Academy on the first day of the school last year. (Sun Staff/Baltimore Sun)

By most traditional metrics, Baltimore’s public schools are struggling. Despite the presence of a handful of high-achieving schools, like Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, city school students, on average, are far less likely to meet math and reading standards for their age groups. They are far more apt to drop out and less likely to graduate than students elsewhere in Maryland, simply because many of them arrive at school with greater physical and emotional burdens to contend with — from lead poisoning to neighborhood violence, crime and poverty. The city’s school buildings are among the oldest in the state, and many lack adequate plumbing, heating and cooling systems. Working in such environments is a challenge, and recruiting qualified teachers can prove a difficult task.

Yet anyone who has even a casual interest in the state of city schools ought to take a look at the Maryland Report Card, the annual state-sponsored yardstick that evaluates schools and school systems not just on snapshots but, most importantly, on improvement and how they are doing compared to years past. By this standard, Baltimore City Public Schools are making headway. Test scores, graduation rates, language skills — they still fall behind statewide averages, but they are getting better. In many cases, the upgrade is modest. In some, schools are still falling behind targets. But it’s a steady improvement that ought not be ignored, particularly given how stagnant city school performance has been in the past.

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So what accounts for the modest advances of recent years?

One factor, perhaps the biggest one, is the competent, steady and positive presence of Sonja Santelises, the school system’s CEO, who just nine months ago was awarded a second four-year contract, an uncommon event for an urban school district. Parents, students, principals and board members alike sing her praises. Worries that she might be hired away by a larger district caused her salary to be bumped up to $325,000 annually, the highest of any Maryland school superintendent. Such broadly supported leadership is not easy to find. Just ask neighboring Baltimore County, where they are on their third leader in three years.

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Yet now comes word that CEO Santelises may be in line to become the next secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, a post currently held by the truly abysmal Betsy DeVos. The best that can be said of the outgoing secretary’s tenure is that she united the nation’s teachers. Against her. Surveys suggested Ms. DeVos was the least popular cabinet secretary in the Donald Trump administration. After four years of promoting school vouchers and privatization of learning while neglecting the real-life travails of school systems like Baltimore’s, her departure can’t come soon enough. Her successor will be in the politically enviable position of not being her.

But, please, let that person not be Sonja Santelises.

The fact is Baltimore stands at something of an educational crossroads right now. Help may be on the way — at least if the General Assembly sticks to its guns and overrides Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the statewide K-12 education reform plan developed by the Kirwan Commission. The $3.8 billion a year plan to be implemented over the next decade was deemed unaffordable by the governor, but ignoring this generational opportunity to upgrade state and city schools ought to be the non-starter.

This is not the moment for a change at the helm of city schools, not when the CEO is about to be given the tools to raise teacher salaries, lower teacher-to-student ratios, improve facilities and on and on. People have faith in CEO Santelises. There’s a level of trust there that no newcomer could hope to have. She can make a bigger difference here than she could possibly have on national policy.

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Never mind the cheap-shot criticism of the Baltimore CEO as being too cozy with charter schools or somehow hypocritical because she sends two of her children to a city charter and a third to private school. Who cares, as long as she’s moving the school system in the right direction? You wouldn’t fire Babe Ruth in 1927 if you found he had a kid cheering for the Red Sox. And her conflicts with the unions are inevitable for anyone in her position, particularly when it comes to a difficult issue like in-person learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

And so we would ask simply that Baltimore schools chief tell folks like the Democrats for Education Reform: “Thanks, but no thanks.” She has unfinished work to do here with a school system that is still struggling and plagued by vast inequities aggravated by the pandemic and stay-at-home learning. It’s flattering to be part of the national conversation. But the real work is at city school headquarters on North Avenue.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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