School & District Management

Sonja Santelises to Replace Gregory Thornton as CEO of Baltimore City Schools

By Denisa R. Superville — May 04, 2016 3 min read
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Baltimore City Schools CEO Gregory Thornton will depart his job on Friday and will be replaced on July 1 by Sonja Santelises, a former chief academic officer in the district.

The surprise move follows a national superintendent search that was not publicly announced, the Baltimore Sun reports.

Santelises, the vice president of K-12 policy and practice at The Education Trust, a Washington-based education policy organization, served as Baltimore’s chief academic officer for three years under former schools chief Andres Alonso during a period when elementary test scores increased.

She also helped prepare the district for the Common Core state standards, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Thornton, who was previously the superintendent in Milwaukee public schools, started in Baltimore, the state’s fourth-largest school district, in 2014. His tenure in city was rocky, marked by what the Baltimore Sun describes as “financial and operational mishaps.” District enrollment plummeted by some 1,900 students, the paper reported. The dropout rate increased, and test scores were lower than expected, according to the Baltimore Sun. The district is also embroiled in a lawsuit with some charter schools over funding.

Thornton’s tenure also coincided with a tumultuous time for the city, which is still coming to terms with the after-effects of the April 2015 death of Freddie Gray, an African-American man whose death sparked waves of protests and prompted an ongoing examination of police-community relations, particularly in black communities.

The board gave Thornton a tough assessment in his first 11 months on the job, calling into question his communication skills and vision. Some community activists and political leaders called for his ouster.

Thornton told the paper that he helped manage a budget shortfall, pushed a five-year district strategic plan, and put in place a $1 billion school construction project, according to the Baltimore Sun.

Santelises was one of four finalists from a pool of eight candidates, the paper said. She returns to Baltimore with a background in both education policy and practice. In addition to a top administrative post in Baltimore, she has served as assistant superintendent of pilot schools and assistant superintendent in charge of professional development in Boston public schools.

She told the Baltimore Sun that her experience at The Education Trust, where she worked on policy implementation, was part of what pushed her to accept the Baltimore job. (Santelises lives in Baltimore and her children attend public charter schools.)

Getting her arms around of the district’s finances and improving coordination between the schools and community services were among her top priorities, Santelises told the paper. She also plans to focus on turning around the district’s lowest-performing schools.

She also plans to listen.

“I am not re-entering the system with an attitude of ‘I’m picking up where I left off,’” she told the paper. “Because it’s a different system now.”

Tammy Turner, the district’s chief legal counselor, will run the school system until Santelises arrives on July 1.

Santelises will be paid $298,000 annually. Thornton was paid $290,000 a year, and he will receive his salary for the third year of his four-year contract as part of a separation agreement with the district, the paper said.

In a statement, Kati Haycock, the CEO of The Education Trust, said that Santelises will work “relentlessly to ensure that all young people in Baltimore get the high-quality education they so richly deserve.”

“In her role as vice president for K-12 policy and practice, Sonja’s experience and insights, especially about instruction, enriched everything we did,” Haycock said. “She built strong channels for learning from and supporting practitioners, and brought the invaluable perspective of a seasoned educator to every decision we made. She consistently pushed our thinking, and we are all better advocates for her time with us.”

Haycock continued: “We’ll miss her terribly. But I always knew there was one call she could not ignore. She may not be a home-town girl, but nobody loves the people—and, most particularly, the children—of Baltimore City more than Sonja. Nobody believes more in their limitless capacity or is more committed to helping them realize it.”

Image Source: The Education Trust

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.