After a school year plagued with budget problems, declining enrollment, school closures and an unprecedented level of gun violence in Baltimore City last year, Mayor Catherine Pugh joined Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonya Santelises at Excel Academy on the first day of school to communicate to students and their instructors their hopes for a new agenda for Baltimore City’s public school students.

Mayor Catherine Pugh joined Baltimore City Public Schools CEO Sonya Santilesis at Excel Academy on the first day of school. (Courtesy Photo)

Excel Academy, an alternative high school in West Baltimore, was the last of three planned “first day of school” visits conducted by Pugh and Santelises.  The pair were joined by Senator Ben Cardin in the morning for school visits at Frederick Elementary and Mary E. Rodman Elementary Schools.

“I am not ignorant nor are young people unknowledgeable that there is a narrative around Baltimore Public School students that reinforces this idea that they are capable of less, that they are somehow less deserving, that they are more apt for underperformance and that our schools are not worth the investment. That narrative that anything in Baltimore is dysfunctional is a narrative that I will continue to reject,” Santelises said in an interview with the AFRO.

Excel Academy students experienced their share of tragedy during the 2016-2017 school year. Five students died from gun violence. An additional student, Rashad Parks, was killed this summer.  Counseling support was added to the school as a result of the trauma students face.

Santelises hopes to focus on social and emotional learning as well as partner with the Open Society Institute in Baltimore to formally adopt Restorative Justice practices to transform what many parents and students have criticized as a punitive environment within Baltimore City Public Schools. Restorative Justice focuses on rehabilitation of the offender rather than punishment.

Santelises, while recognizing that some parents are critical of the way discipline is handled at BCPSS offered a defense of School Police Officers. “We’re proud of the fact that arrests are down and that we’re getting student feedback and their school experiences. In a lot of ways our school police officers have already dug into this question of a healthy school environment has to be built on strong relationships,” she said.

While some Excel Academy Students were excited about the first day of school visit by the Mayor and School CEO, others said there is much more work to do to make Baltimore Public Schools a safe and thriving environment for students. While the Mayor and Santilesis addressed reporters and visited classrooms, a group of Excel Academy student leaders gathered to provide the AFRO with a reality check on the progress of BCPSS.

“I like this school, I think they help us a lot,” said Shontia Crawford about Excel Academy. However, Crawford said that she doesn’t have much faith in the school district as a whole. “I think this school system is violent and crazy and they need to put a stop to it.”

“They’ve got to open up more resources and have more activities for kids.  They need to open more recreation in the schools and across the city,” said Diamante Gilliam.

“They are not teaching the right stuff,” said Asia Young. “For example history – they need to teach us the history that we need to know, what really happened,” she said.

“I think things are a little calmer than they used to be, said Melindy Carter, 20. “There used to be a whole lot of fights, things are calming down” Carter said.

When Pugh and Santelises entered the room, the students were all smiles and cordial.  “I think these two women are authentic and really want to hear our concerns,” said Young after their exchange with Pugh and Santelises.

“The next step is theirs,” said one of the instructors who asked not to be identified.  “These are the student leaders of Excel Academy and are not afraid to speak up and speak out. Now it’s up to them to use this platform and take it to the next level”.