Baltimore schools CEO: We will not hold low-income students back a grade because of coronavirus | COMMENTARY

Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises, top, shares laugh with a kindergartner at Calvin M. Rodwell Elementary during visit to the school with her leadership team.

As school systems across the nation respond to the COVID-19 crisis by rapidly creating systems to support children from a distance, it is hard not to think of the old adage, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.”

To say that things are desperate is not hyperbole. In Baltimore, where I lead the city school district, life has been turned upside down for the vast majority of the families we serve — many of whom were inadequately served to begin with. More people are food and housing insecure, many more are unemployed. Mothers stand in long lines simply to secure a package of diapers.


We have moved as fast as we can to create new supports for students and families, including distance learning grounded in high-quality curricula and guided by outstanding educators. Nevertheless, given the challenges we are facing, we will no doubt find come the start of next school year that many students have fallen behind. What should we do?

One “desperate measure” that’s gotten widespread attention is to retain vast numbers of low-income children at their current grade level.


Baltimore educators won’t be spending one minute of time or one ounce of their brain power exploring this option, for a simple reason: it will not help children. A meta-analysis of the best research suggests that holding back students in elementary grades makes at best a tiny difference — but even that difference melts over time. No good research finds any gains for retaining older students.

And that is before we consider how retention might play out in practice: for instance, the implications of using a single blunt assessment to decide who should be left back; the imperfect logic of focusing on low-income students, some of whom are performing above grade level; the role that bias might play in deciding who is left back; the role that parent advocacy might play in deciding who is advanced. The likely practical outcome of this extraordinarily expensive approach — $15,000 per student at Maryland’s current spending rate — will be to burden large groups of students already adversely affected by segregation with lowered expectations and even more segregation.

For Baltimore, the answer to that proposal is a hard no.

Instead, we are putting our heads together to implement what evidence tells us works. That means a strong initial focus on strengthening relationships between students and their teachers and other trusted adults, to make sure every student feels seen and known by caring adults. Strong and supportive relationships between students and teachers lead to improved motivation and enduring social-emotional and academic outcomes. This connection is particularly important for first-generation students and students of color.

Right now, that means every student getting regular check-in phone calls from a trusted adult. In the fall it will mean much more.

But strong relationships, while a necessary condition, are not enough. That’s why we are doubling down on the work we’ve done to elevate the quality of curriculum and instruction for all students. Finally, Baltimore students have access to challenging, engaging, culturally relevant content, approved by our teachers and outside experts. We will continue to support the professional learning our teachers deserve on how to use these materials, both during times of distance learning and when we are finally able to reconvene in schools. And to help us develop detailed plans to accelerate our students, especially those furthest behind, we’ll be calling on our partners to create assessments that measure returning students’ knowledge of the content they were taught this year and their readiness to tackle next year’s curricula.

To the armchair policy elites who essentially want to give me $15,000 for every student I damage by holding large groups of them in the same grade another year, I say this: give me those funds to accelerate our instructional work and focus our collective creativity on testing and rapidly scaling new evidence-based solutions. Can master teachers play a greater role in accelerating the learning of our students by serving more students, serving students farthest behind, serving immigrant students or all of the above? How can we involve more of our employees and community members in mentoring and other trusting relationships? Can we use new distance learning platforms and a re-imagined calendar to grow tutoring capacity, expand learning time or to allow high school students to choose class schedules that accommodate work? Can we use flexible new calendars and online opportunities to attract retired and future teachers of color, further leveraging community resources?

These are some of the good ideas that deserve meticulous attention. We have no time to waste on the bad ones.


Sonja Santelises ( is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools and a member of Chiefs for Change.