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Sonja Santelises, new CEO of BCPS, is getting ready to take over one of Baltimore’s most important jobs. (Courtesy photo)

Baltimore City Public Schools newly appointed CEO, Sonja Santelises is following through on a quote made famous by the poet, Nikki Giovanni, who once wrote, “While language is a gift, listening is a responsibility.”

Santelises takes listening seriously. Santelises won’t officially start as CEO of Baltimore Public Schools until July 1, but she is already observing, watching and learning from students, parents and community residents.  “I want to get into the schools before school ends pre-July 1. I will be organizing opportunities to hear different groups of stakeholders in the schools and neighborhoods. I want to re-enter Baltimore the same way I entered Baltimore the first time, which is to spend time listening,” Santelises told the AFRO.

Santelises replaces Gregory Thornton, who was appointed in 2014 and left the top administrative post earlier this month after complaints by political and community and a critical performance evaluation from the School Board.  Santelises served as chief academic officer for Baltimore City Public Schools (BCPS) from 2010 to 2013. She was brought to Baltimore from Boston by former BCPS CEO Andres Alonzo (2007-2013), to prepare the District for the curriculum shift to the Common Core Standards.

“We are going to articulate identifiable goals, one step at a time. We are not going to have all schools achieving at high levels in Baltimore by the end of the first year,” Santelises warned when asked about improving standardized test scores “That will take the full time of my contract and beyond. It is important that we communicate broadly to everybody, from elected leaders to teachers to grandmothers who don’t have students in the schools any more, but who are committed to the young people in their community. Everyone should be able to feel part of the work that we are doing in the schools,” Santelises said.

Students in Baltimore and throughout the state of Maryland performed poorly on PARCC   standardized state tests conducted in Fall 2015. At every grade level tested, less than 25 percent of Baltimore City Public Schools’ students met or exceeded standards designed to assess understanding of the new Common Core classroom content, adopted in Maryland in the 2013-2014 school year. The state of Maryland boasted only a 33% rate of proficiency for students who took the test in Math and 39% in English.

Santelises is also ready to transform the sometimes onerous relationship between the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland, with regard to public schools.  “I have every indication in these early days from the Governor’s Office that they are willing to engage.  It is our responsibility to clearly communicate the needs and plans of the city related to the Public Schools.  I am going in with the assumption that we will sit down and have a two-way conversation about the needs of Baltimore’s young people”, Santelises said.

State Senator Catherine Pugh, who won the Baltimore Democratic mayoral election before it was decertified last week, welcomes Santelises’ advocacy for Baltimore schools.  “I’ve heard nothing but great things about her and look forward to working with her to move our schools forward,” Pugh said.

Yozmin Draper, Principal of Frederick Elementary School in Southwest Baltimore attended an Education Trust conference on May 17 where Santelises presented a workshop on High Quality Student Assignments. She believes Santelises is the right choice to lead Baltimore City Schools through its current challenges. “She is such a strategic thinker. There is no magic wand – we all have to work together to develop high functioning teams,” Draper said.

Santelises said she will use her first opportunity as CEO of a major public school system to transform negative stereotypes some still have about Baltimore, one year after nationally televised urban unrest.

“I consider it a privilege to be able to come back and serve in Baltimore City.  There is a large majority of African American students in this city. We need to be educating them to lead. This is the kind of education we want them to have and this is the education they deserve. I think we have the potential for the next generation of African American leaders, not only in this city, but in this nation and the world – to come from Baltimore. Nothing less.  I want this for all students – but this is a majority African-American city…and we should be able to do this.”