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Full Circle Meeting

Thursday, April 6, 2017 | The BWGC

(Left to right) Arlene Kulis Brothers, BWGC Education Committee Member, Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO BCPSS, Carol Rice, BWGC Education Committee Member, Ellie Mitchell, Guest and Prospective Member.

 

Chizuk Amuno Synagogue, March 22, 2017

Members met March 22nd, at a new venue, the Chizuk Amuno synagogue on Stevenson Lane for the third Full Circle meeting of the year. The engaging and dynamic speaker was Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of the Baltimore City Public School System (BCPSS), since July of 2016.

Dr. Santelises, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Brown University, holds a Master of Arts degree in education administration from Columbia University and a Doctor of Education degree in administration, planning and social policy from Harvard University.  Her employment history is equally impressive.  Before accepting the position as CEO of the Baltimore City Public Schools, she was vice-president at the Washington DC-based Education Trust. Prior to that she served as the chief academic officer for the Baltimore city school system for three years.

In a career that spans thirty years, Dr. Santelises’ interest has been to find approaches that work to close the achievement gap of low-income and minority children. She believes that public school systems don’t generally offer these children a curriculum that engages them fully with a rich context that has relevance to them and allows them to develop their interests and talents. She believes that there is a huge pool of latent talent among this population and that there is a pathway to success for every child. Public schools need to become engines of opportunity for these children and drive job growth and the rebuilding of neighborhoods into safe communities. To accomplish this, Dr. Santelises believes that decisions about programming are best made at the local level, so that they can be tailored to local circumstances. 

To gain “on the ground” knowledge and prepare to move her agenda forward, Dr. Santelises began by exploring the city’s neighborhoods and engaging in conversation with city youth of every ilk:  gang members, homeless children, transgender youth and recent immigrants.  From these conversations and her observations generally she has formulated her top priorities:  (1) educate the whole child, and forego thinking of a child as only a reading and math score; (2) improve literacy and communication skills, so the students can communicate their ideas for solving problems; and (3) support teachers with strong teacher training, by providing practical help for becoming a more successful teacher. Dr. Santelises feels that traditional professional development training has not provided all the needed skills, so she has turned to a model of peer learning: Teachers will identify problems specific to their schools and will work in peer groups to find solutions. They will then be given the opportunity to “test drive” new approaches and will be given feedback and support. Once they have found solutions that work, they will have the opportunity to share them with peer groups in other school. 

Principals will also get trauma-informed training they can share with their staff, so as to be able to respond appropriately to the environmental stressors their students are exposed to.

Dr. Santelises also responded to a variety of audience questions.  In response to one question, she described specifically the difficulties of children getting to school using MTA buses.  Data show that a significant number of MTA buses bypass school children and just don’t pick them up.  Children get to school late, and frequently have spent several hours just getting there.  Dr. Santelises sees the unreliability and inadequacy of the transportation system as one of the major obstacles to getting children to school safely and on time.

In response to another question, Dr. Santelises outlined the support the school system is negotiating with the State legislature and City government. Together with reductions and savings the School Board has achieved, and some further moneys the City Council has committed to find, the funding gap of $130 has been substantially closed, though not completely eliminated. Based on the best information available regarding the potential success of the funding plan and of union negotiations, district staff members were asked to prepare revised budget allocations and to provide them to school leaders, hoping for the best but preparing for more difficult budgetary limitations.    

Dr. Santelises’ remarks were very well received; she spoke with deep knowledge, empathy for the school students and teachers, and good humor and realism about the options to move forward.  She graciously answered many questions from Circle members, who were substantively engaged in a dialogue on the important subject of improvements to the City schools educational program. 

For the most up to date funding information and to identify ways you can help visit: http://engage.baltimorecityschools.org