New schools CEO selection brings hope to Baltimore

Unlike departing Baltimore schools CEO Gregory Thornton, Sonja Santelises strong suit is academic leadership.

Being chief executive of a large urban school system is known to be one of the hardest jobs on the planet. But some do it better than others. Often the difference is whether the CEO's skill set fits the particular needs of a school district at a particular point in time.

Therein lies the basis for the enthusiastic hope engendered by the appointment of Sonja Santelises as the new CEO of the Baltimore city schools. Unlike the departing Gregory Thornton, her strong suit is academic leadership.

The school board, during the national search when Mr. Thornton was hired two years ago, stated that it was looking first and foremost for someone who would lift student achievement to a new plateau. But that did not turn out to be his strength.

In some respects, Mr. Thornton was too harshly judged for administrative failures that befall any fiscally poor urban school system. Moreover, his often-criticized lack of vision was not central to his difficulties. Rather, he came up short because he failed to show understanding or leadership to confront the paramount challenge in urban education: the development of an instructional platform that will support classroom teachers in raising student achievement.

That was a fault line that ran through the otherwise exceptional accomplishments of his predecessor Andrés Alonso. Mr. Alonso's theory of change focused chiefly on school principals. He gave them great autonomy, held them strictly accountable, and hired and fired them rapidly. What he neglected was patient investment in the support structures that would build the capacity of the principals.

Aha — but wasn't Ms. Santelises his chief academic officer (CAO) during his last several years as city schools CEO? So how does that square with the hopefulness with which so many have cheered her appointment?

The short answer is that as CAO she simply didn't have sufficient chance to carry out her plans for systemic change in curriculum, lesson plans and materials, teacher training, evidence-based interventions for struggling learners, and other teaching and learning essentials. A recent outside curriculum audit of the city system, while very critical overall, gave the highest marks to the core instructional materials she spearheaded.

The longer answer is that she has shown the capacity not just for envisioning change, but for managing it skillfully. Instructional reforms tend to falter in large part because the most dedicated and able educators often lack management know-how. Management systems and accountability are avoided.

Ms. Santelises, however, would appear to have the whole package. Those who have worked with her — her colleagues especially — recognize her as an expert in classroom instruction who is also an adept manager. She is not afraid to be cutting edge. She has high standards but is at the same time collaborative and a team builder. As an advocate, I had many give-and-take interactions in which she was open and fair.

No, she isn't a miracle worker. The job is hard and slow. She has to be not just an instructional leader but a politician, cheerleader and administrator who is attentive to fiscal and security problems, charter schools and myriad other issues. But more than anything else, her focus must be on elevating classroom instruction.

She will have to strengthen the instructional leaders in central office who can provide school-based principals and teachers with the necessary supports. She must ensure that curriculum expectations are realistically aligned with the burdens on classroom teachers. She must delineate the boundaries of school-based autonomy, particularly ensuring that struggling learners receive evidence-based interventions. She must halt the school system's retreat from prior initiatives to improve outcomes for students with disabilities. She must set agonizing priorities over how to best use scarce funds.

Fortunately, Ms. Santelises seems willing and able to take on these intimidating challenges. And fortunately, the school board has earned an A grade for its actions. It has afforded her the opportunity, and all of us — parents, children, teachers and our entire city — renewed hope for the future of our schoolchildren.

Kalman R. Hettleman is a former member of the Baltimore school board and former state human resources secretary. His email is khettleman@gmail.com.

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