Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, Baltimore City Public Schools CEO plans to get some assistance from Dr. Leana Wen by applying for a government mental health grant. (Kevin Richardson/Baltimore Sun video)
After just weeks on the job, the new Baltimore schools CEO, Sonja Santelises, has zeroed in on one of the trickiest issues in any public school system, and particularly one in a poor urban one like Baltimore: Are teachers and principals there just to educate, or must they also be social workers, mental health counselors and, to an extent, substitute parents? It's a question that has riled many educators in recent years, as they feel thrown into roles they didn't choose, didn't train for and for which they have all too often little support.
What's refreshing about the way Ms. Santelises has presented the issue, both in her inaugural "State of the Schools" address and in a recent editorial board meeting with The Sun, is that she places the tension directly in the context of what teachers did sign up for: helping their students achieve their full academic potential. She wants to provide the training and supports necessary for teachers to engage effectively with students who often face real trauma — from violence to unstable homes to poverty — not because it's a nice thing to do but because it is essential to the district's mission.
Put simply, raising academic achievement to meet the new, higher standards Maryland has adopted requires schools to move away from the old, didactic, teacher-in-front-of-a-blackboard model and toward one of collaborative and interactive learning. That can't happen if teachers and students lack the ability to communicate effectively, which too often means overcoming barriers that have nothing to do with what goes on during the school day.
Ms. Santelises' address to principals was less about the state of the schools than it was the state of the students. She presented neighborhood-level data about violence, poverty, incarceration and health to underscore the urgency of the challenges schools face. She says she has witnessed examples both of school personnel who excel at the tasks of building relationships, setting expectations and providing routines that are essential to academic success and of teachers and administrators who fail — sometimes with the best of intentions — to meet kids where they are developmentally, socially and emotionally.
Teachers, especially new ones, may struggle with the demands Baltimore classrooms present, and Ms. Santelises has already taken steps to help in terms of training and external support. She has made a fast partnership with Dr. Leana Wen, the city's health commissioner, and is working with the health department to seek federal grants that would pay for more mental health-related resources in the West Baltimore communities hit by last year's riots. Teachers don't need to become licensed clinicians, as Ms. Santelises, says, but they do need to know where to call when they are presented with a situation they can't handle alone, and they need to have confidence that someone will answer and help.
Ms. Santelises comes to the district at a time when it has seemed adrift. Baltimore schools made rapid gains a decade ago when Andrés Alonso took over as CEO and made large-scale governance changes, including closing failing schools and decentralizing authority from the system headquarters to individual principals. But those strategies had their limits. Some principals thrived under that system, but others didn't, and the pace of reform on a systems level was never matched by comparable advances in classroom-level instruction. His successor, Gregory Thornton, faced challenges from the adoption of Common Core standards and new assessments, and he never laid out a clear direction for the district, leading civic and educational leaders to quickly lose confidence in his administration. In the middle of his contract, the school board conducted a secret search to replace him, which led to Ms. Santelises.
She worked as the chief of academics under Mr. Alonso and is a natural successor to him — strong in the areas of teacher development and classroom instruction as he was in system governance. It's a shame she wasn't hired three years ago.
Today, she faces real challenges. She takes over as CEO at a time of urban unrest, when the social, economic and racial inequities that have long prevented Baltimore's children from achieving their potential have risen painfully to the surface. In her interview with the editorial board, Ms. Santelises noted that communities have too often felt that education reform was something done to them, not with them. Indeed, her greatest challenge may be in making each of the diverse communities in the city feel equally a part of such a sprawling system. At the very least, we can say with confidence that Ms. Santelises — herself the parent of children in the city schools — knows what she's getting into. We wish her the best of success; 80,000 students are depending on her.