Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) CEO Sonja Santelises has always loved everything about the learning process. As an educator, she said she is privileged to be able to merge the need to engage in work that impacts those beyond her inner circle, and leverage her position as a Black woman in power to provide opportunity for others to maximize their talent.
Even though she is still in her first year in the position, she’s no novice to the city’s school system; she was chief academic officer for BCPS from 2010-2013. After serving for three years as vice president for K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, a D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for closing the achievement gap for students of color and those living in poverty, she returned to city schools in May 2016, taking the helm as CEO with plans to build systems and supports to turn the school system around. Santelises replaced Gregory Thornton after only two years.
Santelises said the school system is committed to supporting educators around curriculum implementation, connecting school to the working world, and moving to seeing students as whole people and not just a compilation of their test scores. She said that to improve education for the city’s students, many of whom are African American, there has been a push to help young Black students “assert their personhood” through literacy and seeing themselves in literature while providing them with the tools to “defend the knowledge that many of them already have.”
“There are schools that do a good job at that now, but, as I think everyone would agree, we don’t have enough,” Santelises told the AFRO. “We don’t have a majority of schools that know how to do that. We need to be far more flexible and results oriented in our thinking about how we get there, what that actually looks like, what it means, and how we really are helping young people feel the connection between what they’re learning today and how that’s going to impact them tomorrow.”
Santelises has been implementing these changes while facing an unprecedented budget shortfall. She released a public letter in Jan. informing the public that there will be layoffs of over 1,000 faculty and staff, in addition to cuts in art classes and enrichment programs, if state and city officials fail to close a $130 million budget gap, the largest in recent history. The state is already facing its own $544 million budget gap, and much of the city’s funding has gone to policing rather than education.
“Unfortunately, the Baltimore City Public Schools System is forced to address a structural deficit, and I know Dr. Santelises is using every resource available to her to address this situation,” Mayor Catherine Pugh said in a statement responding to the crisis.
While school officials have asked city and state legislators for $65 million to help decrease the budget gap, Santelises said that she has no commitments yet from the State House or City Hall to aid city schools. Still, she said that she is encouraged by the outpouring of support from the community, and the advocacy shows an “understanding of the link between education and the future vitality of this city.”
“I’m hopeful that a lot of people who have expressed a willingness to support,” Santelises said. “I think in the end though, it’s going to be the mobilization of families and neighbors who will make sure that the promises of support reap tangible results.
“I’m willing to be held accountable for moving the needle on the achievement, on the options for young people, on improving schools,” Santelises continued, “but to do that without a discussion about the resources that are required, and hard, cold commitments to support that, it is really a fanciful discussion rather than one that is really about commitment.”
Through the budget struggles, Santelises has been able to work to improving the educational experience for city students through various initiatives like a partnership with Johns Hopkins and some of the city’s elementary schools, and the robotics courses offered in some middle grades’ curriculum, which offers a different way for students to view STEM that is much more hands-on with real-world application.
In the face of much of what has been a negative conversation about the condition of the city school system, Santelises remains hopeful that there will be more high-quality options for the children in city schools, as she said she sees “great potential” in Baltimore.
“This really is about preparing generations of leaders in Baltimore city, and that for all of the disparaging news and results that we hear about education, I think it’s important for people to know that we do have schools that are getting it done for kids,” Santelises said. “The challenge is we need more and we need it to be fair widespread and we need to move it to the next level.”