Education & Family

Head of the Class

Sonja Santelises is ready to lead Baltimore City Public Schools.

It’s a steamy Friday in July and Sonja Santelises is sitting in a stuffy conference room on the fourth floor of Baltimore City Public Schools’ district headquarters, reflecting on her first year as city schools CEO. There’s a lot to reflect on. 

Since taking over from Gregory Thornton in July 2016, Santelises has faced a dizzying array of obstacles and crises. From Thornton—who was forced out by the school board less than two years into a four-year contract—Santelises inherited stalled negotiations with the Baltimore Teachers Union and an ongoing lawsuit in which 16 charter schools are suing the school system over claims of insufficient funding. 

Also inherited from previous administrations is the 21st Century Schools Building Project, a $1 billion initiative to renovate or replace decrepit city school buildings. Then there are the perennial struggles: stemming declining enrollment, improving test scores and graduation rates, attracting and retaining high-caliber professional talent.

On top of all that, Santelises encountered some specific challenges: Last December, news broke that the school system was facing a $130 million budget gap for this fiscal year, a shortfall that would likely necessitate cutting about 1,000 positions, combining classes, and eliminating programs like art and music. In the end, lawmakers, parents, educators, and activists rallied, eventually extracting an extra $60 million in state funding to help close the deficit. Layoffs still resulted—115 positions in total, including 13 classroom teachers—but disaster was avoided. 

So how does she evaluate her eventful first year in charge of the district that educates 82,000 kids, employs 11,000 people, and commands an annual budget of roughly $1.3 billion?

Santelises hoots at the question with the knowingness of a prisoner who has just escaped the guillotine and begins a long answer that grows in certainty and righteousness as she continues. 

“I mean, there are always some regrets . . . personnel-based ones here or there, but overall, to be sitting here and not have combined first-, second-, and third-grade classes throughout the district because we had to cut 1,000 teachers? I’m okay with that.”

She yawns—due to the stuffy air, she says—but rhetorically, she’s ramping up. 

“I mean, yes, do I regret that we’re not funded at the level that outside experts, commissioned by the state, have said that we should be funded? Sure. But I am also thrilled that we had a community that mobilized on behalf of its children. . . . We had advocates, we had parents, we had young people, we had principals and teachers who all poured out and said, ‘Our kids are worth it, and you might not give it to us, but we will be heard.’ And I think people were surprised. [People initially thought,] ‘Well, it’s just Baltimore.’”

Nothing frustrates Santelises more than hearing the district and its students maligned. In fact, it was hearing such talk during the unrest following Freddie Gray’s death that motivated her to pursue the CEO position. At the time, Santelises—a married mother of three—was working a cushy job at The Education Trust, a prestigious Washington, D.C., think tank, where she enjoyed a healthy work-life balance and the freedom to research issues deeply and advocate for educational equity without politics and public bureaucracy. 

But watching students from Frederick Douglass High School clash with police at Mondawmin Mall that April afternoon—and listening to subsequent characterizations of those students as hopeless delinquents—“incensed” her.

From 2010 to 2013, she had been chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools, so she knew a different side of the school system and its students, one that bore little resemblance to the caricatures being perpetuated on cable news.   

“At least at the time that I was here as CAO, Douglass was really on the rise,” she says. “Like, I had been in Douglass. I had been in an AP English class. I had seen the cheerleaders getting ready for the football game and the band practice. I just had this thing about proving people wrong, and I felt like our kids were just being blanketed as something that they are not.”  

Almost exactly a year after the clash at Mondawmin, she accepted the CEO position, and then began her new role on July 1, 2016. 

With degrees from Brown, Columbia, and Harvard, and more than 25 years of professional experience as an educator and administrator in urban school systems under her belt, it is a position for which she is eminently qualified. Her best asset, though, may be her “nothing-to-lose” attitude. 

“I told a group of funders when I came back—they were pushing on something—and I said, ‘Let me be real clear: I am not back here because I need a job. . .  . I am back here because of the kids and families of Baltimore.’” 

Growing up in Massachusetts, just north of Boston, Santelises was drawn to education early. 

“If you hear my mom tell the story, I always loved chalkboards and writing. I loved playing school,” she says.

Her father, Jackson Brookins, a chemist-turned-industrial-relations-executive for Eastman Kodak, was supportive of the idea. Her mother, Verna, a former social worker who headed up community relations for Polaroid, was not. 

“For [educated] black women from her generation in the South there were two [options],” Santelises explains. “More than likely, you became a pastor’s wife . . . or you became a teacher. So in my mother’s mind, she wanted something else for me.”

While her mother may have initially discouraged education as a profession, both her parents worked to create a culture of learning for Santelises and her younger sister, Shahara, now a college professor. Santelises’ father, whom she has described as “her intellectual anchor,” was the ringmaster of the dinner table, instigating intense debates on current events. From her mother, who was a district minister in the Pentecostal church, Santelises inherited what she calls “the speech oratory piece” of her personality. 

Though her family was Protestant, Santelises attended Catholic high school, an experience for which she is now grateful. She says her school’s focus on faith and service fit her personality. Furthermore, the school—in its own way—promoted what educators now call “equalizing educational opportunities” and “growth mindset.” (In layman’s terms, an “equalizing” environment is one in which every child—regardless of socio-economic status—is believed to have great potential; “growth mindset” is a philosophy that states that hard work and discipline are skills that can be developed.)

“I remember Sister Mary Louise reaming somebody out who had, like, close to perfect SAT scores,” Santelises says. “She was saying, ‘I don’t care what your SAT scores are, because if you can’t get your work done on time and it’s not done well, nobody cares what your doggone SAT score is!’ 

“So there was really a work ethic,” she continues. “It was the assumption that you work to get smart. And for an African-American girl in a predominately white school, it actually was a big deal. . . . There was really this sense of, ‘You want to come in here and do the work? Go into any [level] class you want to.’”

After high school, Santelises headed off to Brown University, where she double majored in English and international relations. What she was going to do after graduation, though, remained a question. She toyed with the idea of applying for some kind of government post in West Africa, or maybe going back to grad school for international relations. But a stint substitute teaching in her hometown sealed the deal. She loved teaching. It was as simple as that, and her mother would just have to understand. (“She’s long since been okay with it,” Santelises notes.) 

Soon after this realization, Santelises met with a young go-getter named Wendy Kopp at the Au Bon Pain in Harvard Square. Kopp was hatching an idea for a corps of teachers who would be deployed to some of the most disadvantaged districts in the nation. Santelises signed on and moved to New York City to help recruit and place promising candidates for what became Teach for America. From there she became a teacher and curriculum specialist at an elementary school in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, eventually helping to found its affiliated middle school. After that, she took a job with the New York City chapter of the Algebra Project, a nonprofit that works to increase math skills in low-income students. 

Also while in New York, Santelises met her husband, Luis, an entrepreneur and businessman. The couple moved back to Boston, where Santelises enrolled in the selective Urban Superintendents Program at Harvard University. Though she loved the program, she still wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to a career as a district administrator. 

“I was like, ‘Central office? Who the heck would want to go work in a central office?’” she says, mock indignantly. “Like, that is the most unimportant, unrelated work. [The important work] is here, it’s in the schools.”

Gradually, though, she came to see the possibilities, joining Boston Public Schools as assistant superintendent for professional development, then interim deputy superintendent, and finally assistant superintendent for pilot schools, a roll that saw her supervising 23 pilot schools in the district.

Then in 2010, Andrés Alonso, a former Harvard classmate, reached out. He was three years into his tenure as schools CEO in Baltimore and he needed a new chief academic officer. He had offered—and Santelises had declined—the same position in 2008, but he sensed that, this time, she was ready.

“I had enormous respect for her always, and now she had had a set of experiences in a district that was doing some interesting things. I thought that she had probably gotten stronger over time,” says Alonso.

But there were other candidates in the mix, so Alonso arranged for he and a team of trusted Baltimore colleagues to travel to New Jersey for a day of secret interviews with the finalists. 

“I did not signal to the team that I had a preference because they were all strong,” recalls Alonso. “What was so funny was after her interview, during the small debriefing, a couple of people sort of turned and said, ‘Do you really think we can convince her to come to Baltimore?’”

So in 2010, Sonja Santelises and her family—which by then included her eldest daughter, Katriel, and fraternal twin girls, Francesca and Talia—relocated to Baltimore, settling in Roland Park. 

She got to work right away, assembling her own team of deputies who helped her identify and expand upon “pockets of excellence” and standardize teaching practices. 

“One of the things I was most proud of as CAO was we developed a rubric for ‘This is what good teaching looks like in Baltimore City,’” she says. “It’s not idiosyncratic. It’s not what you feel. There is a craft. Yes, you absolutely adapt situationally, but you don’t just rip up everything we know just because somebody feels like they might want to do it a little differently.”

She also identified what she terms “content-anemic” elementary curricula. “Second graders can learn about the Aztecs. You don’t have to give them generalized stories about pets all day,” she insists.  

This is the work Santelises hopes to continue now that she has returned. In July, she unveiled the district’s “Blueprint,” a strategic plan outlining the school system’s priorities, which include literacy and student wholeness—i.e. providing an environment that nurtures a student’s mental, physical, emotional, and academic needs.

“We’ve got to be able to do both,” she insists. “You can create a nurturing environment that’s validating . . . but without setting a standard? That, for me, is professional malpractice.”

She is also realistic about the fact that—for now, at least—she will have to do this with fewer resources than she would like. Without naming names, she questions the wisdom of the special tax increment financing deals the city has approved for mega developments (like Harbor Point and Port Covington) because—among other reasons—they initially add population without collecting commensurate taxes. But she is undeterred. 

She happened to be reading a biography of Mary McLeod Bethune, the pioneering African-American educator, during the budget crisis, and says it “grounded” her, reminding her that there are people who have had to do more with even less. 

“Black churches have opened basements, people have taught kids to read in swamps when it was illegal. Like, we will educate people,” she says. 

“I come from a long line of African-American educators—and the same is true in the Latino community and the same is true in low-income communities in West Virginia—there are always people who are going to care about the education of the most vulnerable.”