Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools (Photo Courtesy/Office of the Mayor)

By Kara Thompson,
MDDC Intern

Dr. Sonja Santelises was recognized on July 5 by Mayor Brandon M. Scott for her six years of service as chief executive officer of the Baltimore City Public Schools System (BCPSS). Santelises began her seventh year in the role this summer and is now the longest serving leader of BCPSS in over 30 years. She only comes in second only to Dr. Alice G. Pinderhughes, who took the helm in 1981 and the left office in 1988.

“On behalf of the city I want to salute you really for being a beacon of light, a steady presence, and for caring deeply about our young people,” said Mayor Scott. “We know that you inherited a job that came with many challenges and no instructional manual…but you’re always on the frontlines, and most importantly, you always put our children first.”

Since 2016, Santelises has served in the position of CEO for BCPSS. During her tenure, she has helped with many improvements in the school system. According to Mayor Scott, six new school buildings were opened last year alone, and 98 schools in the school system had implemented an extended learning program as of spring 2022.

“I’ve always believed in my heart that what we did in the state of Maryland was very much modeled after your thinking, your commitment, and your tenacity to help the children in Baltimore,” said Delegate Maggie McIntosh, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, in reference to Santelises’ work with the Thornton Commission. The commission created a blueprint for Maryland schools to help combat poverty that causes roadblocks for children in schools.

Santelises started her career in education as a director of professional development and teacher placement through Teach for America, which placed her in New York. She later moved to Boston, Mass., where she was assistant superintendent for 23 pilot schools. Santelises finally ended up in Baltimore in 2010, first serving as chief academic officer for City Schools.

Between her time as a chief academic officer and her role as CEO, Santelises served for three years as vice president for K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust. This national nonprofit is focused on closing opportunity gaps that disproportionately impact low-income students and students of color. The organization works alongside teachers, parents, and students help to shape federal and state policies, and analyzes data in order to bridge the gap between students. 

“I really am truly, truly thankful for the last six years, the support of the folks behind me, the support of the people who are not here, many of whom are out in the communities– the people of Baltimore City who stopped and tapped me on the shoulder to say ‘we’re praying for you,’ the people who really believe in our young people, who come out and serve in our schools,” said Santelises. 

“I really don’t know what to say except there is no better place to serve than Baltimore City,” she said. 

Santelises received a bachelor of arts from Brown University, a master of arts in education administration from Columbia University, and from Harvard University receiving a doctorate of education in administration, planning, and social policy.

School superintendents from around the country sent their congratulations to Santelises via recorded video and one could not help but notice that a majority of the videos were from Black women. The mayor shared the well wishes and praise for Santelises and her family shortly after the press conference, generating an emotional response from the CEO.

“Congratulations to my dear friend, Superintendent Sonja Santelises, on being recognized by the city of Baltimore for the amazing work that you are leading every single day,” said Dr. Talisa Dixon, superintendent of Columbus City Schools. “I am so glad to have you as a friend and colleague.”

Iranetta Wright, superintendent of Cincinnati Public Schools, said that Santelises has served as a role model to her.

“I am so proud of you. Not only are you showing me as a new superintendent what it means to be an amazing urban school superintendent, but you truly are one of the best superintendents in the country,” she continued. “Congratulations to you, enjoy your moment, you truly deserve it, we are all watching and we are proud of you.”

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