Charm City Turnaround

Under the leadership of Sonja Santelises, Baltimore's public schools and its students have made incredible strides. Now she's preparing to continue building on that success while creating a more equitable post-pandemic system.

Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonja Santelises is known for being direct. It’s a quality that has served her well in reshaping one of the country’s most challenging school districts.

In a city with some of the highest rates of concentrated poverty anywhere in the nation, Baltimore’s nearly 78,000 K–12 students have made noticeable progress over the last few years in both test scores and graduation rates. “One factor, perhaps the biggest one, is the competent, steady and positive presence of Sonja Santelises, the school system’s CEO,” wrote the Baltimore Sun last year, urging Santelises to stay on the job. “Parents, students, principals and board members alike sing her praises.”

With that kind of record, it’s unsurprising that Santelises was rumored to be on President Joe Biden’s short list for education secretary, or that the Baltimore Sun is pleading with her to stick around. Santelises has overseen Baltimore’s public schools since 2016. She began her career with Teach for America in New York before lecturing on  urban education at Harvard, overseeing K–12 policy at the Education Trust, and serving as an assistant superintendent in the Boston Public Schools.

“I think you need a diverse set of experiences to be effective in a job like this,” Santelises tells The Elective. “You can’t just stay in the kind of schools where you’re comfortable. I’ve been in public schools, parochial schools, private schools. It’s important to see different places and work in different environments.”

For the past year, Santelises and her colleagues have worked in a very different environment as they tried keeping students on track through months of online learning and a gradual return to in-person learning. In a recent conversation, Santelises shared some of the lessons they’ve learned and how she hopes pandemic-era changes might usher in a new era of highly personalized learning.

Headshot photo of Sonja Santelises on the left, the logo of Baltimore City Public Schools on the right

Baltimore City Public Schools

You’ve championed high expectations as a key ingredient for student success. The last year has been a hard one for everyone—especially students, parents, and teachers. How do you balance a recognition of that hardship with confidence about the future?

The ability to balance that is squarely connected to our ability as educators to make sure families understand their children are seen, known, and cared for as individuals. The pandemic was bad for everybody, but it wasn’t equally bad for everybody. As we come out of it, we’re really going to have to show a depth of personal knowledge that schools aren’t always known for. We are going to have young people coming from even greater levels of difference in the experiences they’ve had during this year. What that requires is yes, absolutely, having assessments at the beginning of the year to know which students still need work in which areas. But also to see where students were able to succeed despite the circumstances, and to celebrate that.

We also need a lot of focus on where students are emotionally. I’m the mother of three girls who had very different experiences over the last year. If you just look at my youngest daughter's math score, you wouldn’t necessarily know she suffered mild depression last year; that she really struggled being away from school and friends. You wouldn’t know that, for my eldest daughter, the ability to access the arts was key to her sanity in a really challenging year. And unless you spoke with us, made the effort to know what went on in our household, you’d never know my other daughter was done with virtual learning by 11:00 AM every day and could have just sat in front of the television if she had different parents who weren’t there to push her.

To address where young people are, we have to really know what they’ve been through. And that’s going to take some real work from all of us.

How do you gain that kind of personal knowledge on a huge scale? Are schools set up to do that?

It’s something we’re figuring out now. The goal for us will be to have that kind of detailed profile for every student. Some of it will come from teachers and their insights, but we also need family interviews and family input. This will be the first time we’re lifting that up not only as a best practice but as an expected practice for all of our schools. Testing and assessment will resume in the fall, and that’ll be an important benchmark. But we’re really focused on figuring out how to have a holistic view. If there are mental health providers, social workers, and others with important insight into a student’s needs, how do we make sure that makes it into our plans? How do we make sure teachers have that information so they can serve students well?

Another big part of it will come from the students themselves: How does their input feed into this, particularly in the case of older students? We want to do that districtwide, to hear students’ own voices about what they’ve been through and what they need from us. We’re aiming to complete all of those profiles by the end of our first quarter this fall.

We also want to provide much more detailed and transparent data to families: What do parents want to know? What do students want to know? If we’re able to start measuring the progress of students through different, more diverse kinds of data than we do now, we want families to have access to all of that. So more communication in both directions.

When it comes to more personalized learning, I’ve heard a lot of optimism that schools will be in a better position to use technology to match lessons and practice more closely to students’ needs. Do you see that happening in Baltimore?

The gains we’ve made in terms of technology access are huge! I don’t think everything can live or die on technology, but the last year has forced us to really invest in something we should have been investing in all along. Within a year and a half, we’ll be moving to one-to-one device access in all Baltimore schools, meaning every student has their own device. That was not at all the case before, when we were closer to one device for every three or four students.

What we found is that giving students some amount of time with digital tools can help us determine exactly what skills a student needs to work on, then we can give them a series of exercises and practice they need to build on that. It helps us personalize instruction much more easily.

Sonja Santelises, in a winter coat and scarf, smiles as she puts her arm around a smiling student

Baltimore City Public Schools

During her tenure leading Baltimore City Public Schools, Dr. Sonja Santelises has proven so popular among teachers, students, and families, that local media has implored her to stay in Baltimore and continue guiding the city's schools.

We’re also looking at how we can use technology to get some of our strongest teachers in front of more students. If we have an especially great math instructor for eighth grade, we can now put that teachers’ lessons in front of a whole lot more students and free up more of our other teachers to work in small groups or one-on-one with students who need extra help. We can really rethink the way we use teachers’ time. I can see a variety of ways we might be able to build that out.

The covid-19 relief money has been crucial in making all of this happen. There’s absolutely no way we could have made so much progress on the digital divide with our own budget. The fact that the federal government and the Maryland state government came through with such an extraordinary level of investment—this is really the first time we’ve been able to think about some of these major expansions of online learning. And our teachers have certainly noticed. There’s no way we could have gotten this many kids engaged virtually before. The investment just wasn’t there. To see all of that happen so quickly is amazing.

One of your first major initiatives as CEO of the district was to standardize the curriculum across schools. What impact did that have when the pandemic forced a rapid transition to online learning?

One of our principals said it best: We could finally have real conversations across schools, and teachers across the district could talk to one another. A common curriculum provides that cohesion, and in a pandemic that was priceless. It meant teachers weren’t having to adjust to virtual learning and still trying to find things on the internet to plug into their teaching.

I don’t think people appreciate just how much extra work that is in the middle of something you’re trying to navigate for the first time. Having a centralized lesson for each grade level that was already taught, already posted online, that applies to every child in that grade across the district—it made a tremendous difference to teachers and parents. It freed them up to spend more time working directly with their students. The feedback wasn’t, “Oh, this is cramping my style and creativity.” It was, “Thank you for letting me actually focus on the teaching piece of the job during this very new and very stressful situation.”

Kyair Butts, one of our teachers of the year, wrote a piece about being a teacher during the pandemic and having to manage the sudden shift to virtual learning. He basically said, “Thank God we had common materials because we can’t imagine how much more difficult this would have been.” That shared curriculum helped a great deal to stabilize things in a time of instability.

Sonja Santelises, holding balloons and speaking into a microphone on the left, Kyair Butts smiles and holds a bouquet of flowers and framed certificate on the right

Baltimore City Public Schools/Vimeo

Dr. Sonja Santelises congratulates Kyair Butts in his classroom at Waverly Elementary Middle School on being named 2019 Baltimore City Public Schools Teacher of the Year.

The Baltimore Sun wrote an editorial last year praising you for the trust you’ve earned in the community and begging you not to leave for another job. How do you earn that kind of reputation and sense of confidence in a challenging place like Baltimore?

I’ve always tried to be forthright about where our weak spots are and about where we need to move next. I’m committed to equity in a way that families experience very practically. Nobody wants some over-theorizing frame for equity. They want to know what it means in practice. It means my child has a 21st-century school space. It means my child has access to advanced coursework. It means my child is prepared when they graduate to go to college or get a good job.

Early in my tenure, I spent a lot of time kind of walking neighborhoods myself—not just doing occasional focus groups here or there, but really spending time with people. The last year and a half, with so much time spent behind a screen, is going to make it incredibly important to do that again, to get out and hear from people directly. I try never to go very far from my role as a mother, from thinking about the questions that people have as parents.

You also have to be forthright about your own limits. I lead the district, but I’ve never tried to teach virtually in a once-in-a-century pandemic, so I should not be standing up there saying, “Well, this is exactly how you should do it!” You’ve got to listen to the people around you, keeping in touch with the reality on the ground for both young people and families and educators. That’s so central to this work.

Being a district leader is a tough job even in the best of times. What does a good day at work look like for you? What makes you go home at night feeling like you’ve been successful?

A great day at work is actually being in a school, especially one that was not in a great place for kids and families a couple years ago—walking back in and seeing serious progress and movement. That is just incredibly refreshing. I remember one school that had been underserving its community for years. It had very low, static student achievement. Families didn’t want to be there. But it got a new principal, new leadership, and when I visited again recently, it was like night and day. There’s energy, there’s focus, things are moving in the right direction. That’s always a great day, to see something like that.

It’s also a great day when I run into families in the grocery store and they say, “You know, I actually like my school!” or, “We’re proud Baltimore City graduates or parents of graduates.” So those are the things—when you get to see schools doing right by kids and families.

I took a yoga class with a bunch of Pre-K students last week. I thought I was going to be there for a session on gardening, but I ended up on a yoga mat. Those kids had no trouble at all with the poses! I guess my planks aren’t doing it because I was not as adept as I could have been alongside those kids. I felt very old on that mat. But I got to see them having a blast at yoga, then examining peppers in the garden with little tweezers and magnifying glasses and being little scientists. It was wonderful. Whenever I have a bad day, I go back to a classroom like that—a classroom that’s working.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.