Baltimore City Schools’ CEO, Dr. Sonja Brookins Santelises
By Dr. Sonja Santelises
“I just want to frame it, for my dad.” Those were the words of 2020 graduate, Kuijuan, as he spoke of earning his diploma. He’d travelled a bumpy path to that diploma, often juggling school and work to help support his family.
He watched the Virtual Graduation Ceremony on YouTube with his father, while family members called, and text messages streamed in from teachers. It wasn’t the graduation Kuijuan imagined. But there he was, surrounded by those who helped get him there.
Kuijuan’s story is a powerful reminder of the resilience of our students. It also is a reminder of the powerful collective role that we adults—family members, educators, mentors and neighbors—play in anchoring, affirming and lifting our young people.
But though our collective efforts can overcome enormous obstacles, let’s be honest: we are entering a new school year in the context of a set of unprecedented challenges for which we do not have all the answers.
To our families: I know that the continued uncertainty around school re-opening presents significant hardship for many of you, compounding the stress of an already stressful time. Please know how much it frustrates me that I cannot promise you when we will be able to welcome your children back to school safely.
But I promise you this: all of us at City Schools support you, and we are investing every hour, and every resource, in doing all we can to prepare for a safe re-opening.
Together, we will get through this. It is who we are, Baltimore.
It’s educators who, with no notice, drove their instruction on-line, and school leaders who stayed in touch with families. It’s staff who worked the front lines at meal sites and teachers who taught at our in-person summer learning pilots, their love for students outweighing worries for themselves. It’s parents who took on the role of co-teacher, transforming kitchens into classrooms. It’s our youngest learners, missing friends and teachers, who adjusted to a different mode of connection and instruction. And it’s our 2020 graduates, like Kuijuan, who managed change and disappointment and persisted to a diploma.
As we launch into a new school year virtually, we must be more deliberate and creative than ever. We can’t rely on old routines. And we will work hard to ensure that all students have access to the highest quality instruction, even if that instruction must be delivered, at least for now, through a screen.
We have all seen the doomsday predictions around learning loss with extended closures. Like you, I am troubled by these. Since March, we’ve been working strategically to prepare for phased reopening, devising plans to target gaps in learning and accelerate growth, and swiftly dismantling the already troubling systemic inequities that existed even prior to closures. You can learn more in our Closing the Distance Plan on the City Schools website.
I also know this to be true: predictions are warnings. They are not destiny. But we can’t wait to intervene.
As we’ve heard from families throughout the closures, they care about their children’s well-being, certainly. But they are equally clear that they care deeply about their children’s learning and academic progress.
Families are not just calling us to care; they are calling us to teach. We must—and will— do both.
That is why we are focused on ramping up quality and rigor in our remote instruction, and why we invested about $40 million to provide 65,000 Chromebooks to students who need them and internet access for families without. And it’s why we contacted families, students, and educators to learn from their experiences with online instruction.
It’s why we launched a massive wellness check effort over spring and summer to reach nearly 3,000 school-disconnected students and families. And it’s why we are following up to ensure that every student is connected to their school—and to learning.
It’s why, this September, we will open 86 additional meal sites for families.
For all that our current challenges have rendered uncertain, they have also revealed a powerful truth: that we are all interconnected, and deeply reliant on each other. As a new school year begins, I and City Schools stand with our families. But we also issue a call to our beloved community.
This summer, buoyed by a federal grant, we launched an ambitious near-to-peer tutoring program, partnering with Morgan State, UMBC and UMD, where college students, trained in reading and math instruction, worked directly with struggling rising 9th graders. We intend to extend and expand tutoring supports for students into the fall and urge all in the community to get involved.
We need all the gifts and energy of our community to see our children through, and to protect and affirm the lives—the humanity, gifts, and infinite potential—of every young person in Baltimore. Together, I know we can.
Dr. Sonja Santelises is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.
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