September 5, 2023
The Power of Connection
Dr. Sonja Santelises brought Baltimore City Public Schools’ leaders together on August 17th to celebrate the beginning of a brand-new school year during the annual CEO Back-to-School Kick-Off gathering, held this year at the American Visionary Art Museum.
Dr. Santelises led the conversation around last year's progress, highlighting many specific schools for their performance point increases. Her message was centered around the Power of Connection as school districts nationwide navigate the effects of long-term remote learning. The information shared proves how Baltimore City Public Schools has steadily smashed achievement goals despite the many challenges children in our district face today. The kick-off event exemplified what it means to rally a team and clarify the core mission ahead of a new adventure.
Students from Baltimore School for the Arts kicked off the event with performances in modern dance and cello. Principals, directors, and alike got the chance to mingle with colleagues and share the success and pain points of the previous year. With a 97 percent participation rate in summer programs like the Chief Academic Officers’ Literacy and Math Institutes, City Schools continues to foster student and staff development into the new school year. Efforts have paid off in the most impactful areas as kindergarten readiness is outperforming the nation by seven percentage points. Achievement surges were not selective to early years as almost ALL grades saw an increase in MCAP scores. The second full year back in school since the pandemic, 2023 promises to keep the ball rolling as an unprecedented year of growth.
Attendance was one of the biggest talking points, with many schools still transitioning students back into full-time on-site learning. City Schools is focused on supporting students as they adjust back to an onsite learning schedule after two years of virtual learning during the pandemic. Despite the drawbacks, Booker T. Washington Elementary School saw a 13.3 percent increase in attendance in just one year. Principal Rashida Ford says the biggest takeaway from Dr. Santelises' message was being intentional about creating a place where students can connect with staff and peers. Santelises shared wise words from historian and social activist Vincent Harding about how our lives can be signposts for what's possible, a light in an otherwise bleak outlook others may have on life. Ford reiterates the idea of serving the community by being a shining example.
“In the city of Baltimore in all its greatness and all its charm, there is chaos going on,” Ford said. In that chaos, we have to figure out how can we continue to illuminate places, spaces, and lives so that we can continue to push forward, do the work, and be successful.”
Jayson Greene of New Song Academy talked about how celebrating the wins and achievements of students and families has motivated him for this upcoming school year. His position as an executive director places the business of education at the forefront of his daily duties.
“I bring in the money, keep the lights on and the toilets running,” he said, noting Dr. Santelises’ message of connection has inspired him to unite with more of his colleagues. “Often times we’re behind a Zoom, teams meeting, or an email. This way we get to put faces to names and connect. I already have four or five meeting follow-ups because of this and it's phenomenal.”
Greene remarked that sometimes as an executive director, you don’t feel as connected to the classroom as other student-facing staff members. He already enjoys popping into classrooms, recesses, and lunches. However, he’s inspired to dig deeper in the upcoming school year.
“I’ve done the side where I've been with them, but now I want them to come with me,” Greene said. “When I go to a meeting about a funder, I’m bringing them with me. That’s where they’re going to feel empowered and learn so much more.”
Dr. Santelises closed the kick-off event with a reminder of the proximity principle. Leaders tend to serve people they see, touch, and spend time with. Leaders who huddle rather than mingle grow inward and serve each other, instead of their communities. On the contrary, leaders like Ford and Greene demonstrate a renewed closeness and commitment to the communities they serve. With school leaders aligning themselves more intently with an already steadily improving student demographic – this school year will undoubtedly be another one of progression for City Schools.