Walter Sondheim Jr. has probably had a greater impact on Maryland education in his retirement than many people had during their careers in the state’s schools.
In the late 1980s, the Baltimore native, then in his 80s, led the charge to establish the accountability system that changed how Maryland tested its students and assured they met new state learning goals. In 1995, then-Gov. Parris N. Glendening, a Democrat, appointed him to the state board of education, a post that made Mr. Sondheim a steward of the program he helped create.
Now, a few weeks away from his 95th birthday on July 25, the impeccably dressed former department-store executive has left his seat on the board. His June 25 departure was forced by state law that limits board members to two four-year terms.
While he refuses to take credit for policies he’s been influential in launching, state leaders say he was the force behind the innovative, nationally scrutinized testing system that defined student achievement in new ways in the 1990s.
The program grew out of a the Governor’s Commission on School Performance, which then-Gov. William Donald Schaefer formed in 1988 and tapped Mr. Sondheim to chair.
The commission’s report called for a system of testing and accountability that would measure schools’ success in helping student achieve. It led to the introduction of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program and a series of state interventions to help low-performing schools improve.
Other states adopted much of the framework of the Maryland plan and added their own standards.
While Maryland educators still refer the influential commission paper as the Sondheim Report, the panel’s chairman gives the credit for it to others.
“My total contribution to the report was the letter I wrote [to Mr. Schaefer in unveiling it],” Mr. Sondheim said over breakfast shortly before his final meeting as a member of the state board. “And I wrote it myself, I’m proud to say.”
Others note that the report was groundbreaking in Maryland and put it ahead of other states in the school improvement debates of the 1990s. And they are quick to recognize Mr. Sondheim’s role.
“The [federal] No Child Left Behind legislation represents how visionary Walter was in his leadership,” Nancy S. Grasmick, the state superintendent of schools and a friend of Mr. Sondheim’s, said at the breakfast. “The legislation is totally aligned with the provisions of the report.”
K-12 education is only one avenue of civic service Mr. Sondheim has pursued dating back to World War II, when he served Stateside in the U.S. Navy.
After retiring in 1970 from Hochschild, Kohn & Co., a now-defunct Baltimore department store, he led the effort to develop Baltimore’s Inner Harbor with museums, hotels, and other tourist destinations. He’s served on a long list of boards and committees. He still works as a senior adviser to the Greater Baltimore Committee, a business- led civic group.
In 1999, The Sun of Baltimore named him one of the “Marylanders of the Century.”
“When problems fester, majors and governors put Mr. Sondheim on board,” the newspaper wrote. “When the problems are crucial, they make him chairman.”
In 1954, for example, he was the president of the Baltimore city school board when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down school segregation in the historic Brown v. Board of Education decision. Under his leadership, the Baltimore schools desegregated quickly, despite protests and resistance in the white community.
“Some of us thought we were having riots,” Mr. Sondheim said. “By today’s standards, they were minor disturbances.”
One of those disturbances was a cross-burning on his lawn. It was a small one, he remembers, and a neighbor quickly put the blaze out so Mr. Sondheim’s children wouldn’t see it.
‘A Calming Influence’
Mr. Sondheim said he has no plans after retiring from the state board.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he said. “I’m going to go through a stack of books.”
Ms. Grasmick, who has known him since she worked in his offices at Hochschild Kohn as a teenager in the 1950s, said he will be missed on the board.
“He’s such a calming influence,” the schools chief said. “He always hits the heart of the issue.”