Our City, Our Schools

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By Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises

As families across Baltimore prepare to send their children back to school, I am reminded of the awesome privilege and responsibility that we have at City Schools. At a time when our city continues to face significant challenges, our schools must be both an anchor for the community and springboard for its children. The stakes for our young people are high. Three years into the implementation of our City Schools Blueprint, we’ve made tremendous progress. We are certainly not where we want to be yet, but I am proud of the growth and achievements of our schools and our students. 

In this first guest editorial, I want to provide a glimpse of where we are—and where we’re going. My chiefs and I will be back to share more with AFRO readers over the coming school year.

Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools since 2016, says every single neighborhood in Baltimore City now has gifted and advanced learning programs at the elementary level and that every single high school will offer Advanced Placement courses. (Courtesy Photo)

Many of you are longtime fellow warriors in the fight for education justice, so I want to be clear:  we will continue to call out and tear down institutional barriers that have denied opportunity to too many of our young people for far too long. We will continue to rally alongside community members and fight for equitable resources. And we will continue to name the issues at City Hall and in Annapolis. 

But let’s be really clear: not all the problems are external. With our new Equity Policy, we are redoubling efforts to examine our practices, solicit feedback from students, and eradicate processes within city schools that delay or flat out deny opportunity to our students. And using our community index data, we are targeting and investing resources and opportunity in schools in neighborhoods that have historically and systematically been denied them.

But Baltimore City families and community members don’t just call for the absence of injustice in our schools. They call on us to strive for the presence of academic excellence. Like parents everywhere, our families want their children to attend schools where adults believe in them, and care enough to challenge them academically. That is the very heart of the Blueprint and thrust of the work ahead. 

Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises, CEO, BCPSS. (Courtesy Photo)

What does that mean for Baltimore’s children? It means every single neighborhood in Baltimore City now has gifted and advanced learning programs at the elementary level. It means that every single high school will offer Advanced Placement courses. 

It means access to athletics and the arts, not simply because they’re nice to have, but because they are critical to the development of wholeness in all our young people.

It also means new, high-quality curricula. Last year, we implemented Wit and Wisdom, an engaging English curriculum aligned to true college and career readiness. We placed literacy coaches in 20 schools, and this year, we will provide coaches in 20 more.  

In math, we launched the widely-respected Eureka curriculum. We are zeroing in on the critical middle grades to ensure that all students can access Algebra I before high school. Meanwhile, in social studies, students are exploring Baltimore and African American history and culture, sounding their own voices through our new “BMore Me” initiative. 

In high schools, we are empowering students with personalized learning, mentoring, and internships. We are also overhauling our career and technical programming to provide students with exposure to and preparation for meaningful careers. 

However, none of this will work if students don’t feel safe, supported, and loved in their schools. Last year, 35 of our schools served as social-emotional learning sites where staff instituted new practices to improve climate and nurture student wholeness. I am thrilled to announce that we’re adding 21 more this year. Further, 75 more of our highest need schools will gain a community school specialist, and students in every school will have access to a social worker. 

From Park Heights to Cherry Hill, from Sandtown to Highlandtown, every student in Baltimore deserves a school brimming with opportunity, where they can imagine and reimagine themselves. Where they can stretch, grow, and fulfill their God-given potential and purpose. That is our charge.

I am excited about all this new school year has in store at City Schools, and I hope you will join us in supporting our schools and Baltimore’s young people.

Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.