“In Their Own Words” with Baltimore City Schools CEO Dr. Sonja Santelises

Date: January 18, 2017

“The work of schooling is the work of community building,” said Dr. Sonja Santelises as she began her January 12 address to more than 125 United Way Tocqueville Society members and guests. “And the building blocks of communities are families.” The CEO of Baltimore City Schools shared her thoughts on the support students need to persist and succeed in school.

Many Baltimore City students lack adequate family support to help them navigate the challenges of school and adolescence, and teachers often must deal with students’ unaddressed needs that play out in the classroom.  For many students, said Dr. Santelises, school is a second home, and if kids aren’t getting the help they need at home, schools can step in to help. “School and home for our young people are interrelated,” she said. “There’s a desire on their part that school has elements of a home. For them, school is not a compartmentalized place, but part of a network of support.”

With 27 years of experience in building high quality teaching and learning to help students excel, Dr. Santelises recently returned to Baltimore after serving for three years with the Education Trust in Washington, D.C. What compelled her to return were Baltimore’s students and families, and her passion for urban schools.

“When I returned to Baltimore, the city was in a different place. There had been a rupturing [with the 2015 riots following the death of Freddie Gray],” she said. To acclimate herself to a changed city, Dr. Santelises toured various neighborhoods and met with students from a broad spectrum of academic backgrounds—from valedictorians and class presidents to students at the margins.

She was most interested in the stories of students who were “quite a distance from the promise that public education holds,” including those who were homeless, gang leaders, and those learning English. “One thing became clear,” she noted. “Their resilience is unquestionable. They told me, ‘You don’t know how hard it is to just get to school. Lots of us are just stressed out.’”

Dr. Santelises said that schools need to take into account family situations and work to strengthen families, which will in turn strengthen schools. “Teachers have found that it’s a lot easier to get kids to read if their families have stable employment and housing,” she said. She pointed to Jackie, the teen mom featured in a short video featuring a student and her daughter enrolled in the United Way Family Center at Benjamin Franklin High School in Baltimore City. “It’s easier for her to go to school because there’s a place for her daughter there.”

The Center offers day care, job training, financial education and other support services and resources to neighborhood families.

This approach to helping stabilize families and keeping kids in school works: One-hundred percent of teen parents enrolled in the United Way Family Center at Ben Franklin graduate high school compared to a nationwide rate of only 40 percent.

According to Dr. Santelises, another key component to student success is building healthy relationships—not only among students, but between students and teachers. “We’re not expecting teachers to be psychiatrists or clinicians. We’re providing them with a stronger understanding of behaviors that aren’t just acting out but actually have a connection to something that’s happening outside of school.”

She cited the need to expand partnerships like many schools have with United Way that provide critical resources to kids and families in need, and United Way’s Character Playbook program, a digital learning initiative focused on youth character development and building healthy relationships.

“School and home for our young people are interrelated. There is a desire on their part for school to have elements of a home. School is not a compartmentalized place, but an integrated thread in a network of support.”


Baltimore City Mayor Catherine Pugh will be the speaker at the next “In Their Own Words” breakfast, which will be held March 9 for United Way Tocqueville Society and Leaders United members. Please check our website and your email for more details soon.

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