Kevin: The pandemic has created a window of opportunity to change the way we serve a new generation of learners. But how can we drive meaningful reforms in U.S. school districts, some of which have been resistant to change? What can we do to introduce curricula that engage students and prepare them for rewarding careers? And what is the secret to building an agile infrastructure that makes change possible? This is "What I Want To Know."
Kevin: Today, I'm joined by Dr. Sonja Santelises and Dr. Shari Camhi to discuss a new vision for the future of school districts across the country. Dr. Sonja Santelises is the CEO of Baltimore City public schools. She has spent her 30-year career in urban education. Dr. Santelises is a big believer in the power of curriculum. When done right, it can drive student engagement, career success, and increase equity. She's joining me today to discuss new approaches to curriculum and how the aftermath of the pandemic gives us an opportunity to change school systems for the better.
Well, Dr. Santelises, it is such an honor to have you on the show. I'm a big fan of your work. I've got a lot I want to unpack. But I do want to go back to your roots. You know, as I was doing some research on you, we have something in common. I understand your father was a chemist?
Dr. Santelises: Yes. Yes. He sure was. He was.
Kevin: And he grew up in the South.
Dr. Santelises: In Mississippi.
Kevin: And my father grew up in South Carolina. And he had a master's in chemistry.
Dr. Santelises: Really?
Kevin: And ended up going to pharmacy school in Indiana. He was in the service, meet mother when he was stationed in Indianapolis, where she's from, and ended up being one of the first African Americans licensed to practice pharmacy, and the whole science background thing, particularly for, you know, folks of color, men of color back then, it was almost like a hidden thing that rarely came out because you didn't have the opportunities. And I know you must have grown up hearing those stories.
Dr. Santelises: Yes. So, one, it is great to be in the club with you, Kevin, of the, you know, folks who have black fathers who were in science, because I agree with you, it is a big thing. And I do remember the stories and my dad even told my girls that he was set to go to dental school, wanted to be a dentist, looked at the cost of dental school, and said, "Well, that's not going to happen." And, you know, took the chemistry straight route, but it does. And it just points to the hidden gems and the hidden frankly, potential.
Kevin: You know, Sonja, the last thing I'll say on this, I was the outlier in the family. I have no science or math proclivities, at least none that I know of. And my youngest brother won the state science fair. My sister...one sister has an accounting degree. My other sister did biology and chemistry research. And my father's a pharmacist. But I could talk, so.
Dr. Santelises: Which is clear. Which is clear.
Kevin: That's how I got by.
Dr. Santelises: Yes. Yes.
Kevin: But how did that influence you because you later ended up running a strong math program in New York City, algebra program? Is clear, it instilled this desire to make sure that the sciences and math were not neglected or ignored among low-income working-class families.
Dr. Santelises: Absolutely. It had an influence and very similar to you. I am a daughter of letters, even though I am a daughter of biochemist. And you know, normally folks would be surprised, right? They would say, you know, you’re literature, you’re a world language geek, like why this and but you're absolutely right. And it's because of my dad. Even though I discovered a love for languages, I discovered a love for writing and literature. That's not going to jazz everybody, right? And so that's important. And then two, you know, just when you look at who the schools are, that are producing large numbers of scientists, either black scientists, brown scientists, scientists from underrepresented groups, really the answer to a lot of our world's public health, environmental questions, those are coming from young people who hold the answers. And if they don't tap into where they are, then those answers go unearthed. And so I really believe that. I really believe the cure to diseases are lying in this next generation. And I think that, you know, answers to world population challenges, and feeding challenges, and climate change, and all of that is located in this generation. And so we don't know what young people are going to do. But I do often think is that the next Jackson, right? Which is my dad's name, that we're not reaching.
Kevin: And when it comes to the future, and the fact that we need more kids of color in the sciences, it does begin with that grounding when they start school and having the opportunity to get a quality education, which leads me to Baltimore City schools. I mean, you're the CEO of a school district that's had some challenges. Talk to me about why you even wanted to do this?
Dr. Santelises: A lot of it is just driven by what we just finished talking about that there is this potential, that there are this kind of blanket, broad brushstrokes of definitions, particularly about young people of color, that just are not true, and are based and grounded in a lack of opportunity, lack of kind of underserved, under-educated communities, that really are hampering our progress as an overall society. My drive is yes, you know, there's untapped potential, but also, there really is a tradition of educational excellence, particularly in the black community that I think drives me to want to do this work.
Kevin: And when you came to Baltimore, you know, some of the challenges, as you know, I was real active with D.C. public schools, and it was similar, you know, 20 years ago. All we heard and read about were not the examples of excellence, but the challenges...you know, some of the challenges, not just in school systems in D.C., and in your case, Baltimore, but in the neighborhoods and communities, there was holistic challenges in terms of, you know, mind, body, and spirit. How did you prioritize your approach to working toward turning things around?
Dr. Santelises: You know, there's a narrative that really separates communities from their schools, and some of it is founded on, you know, legitimate concerns, right? And you know this, whenever you close schools, it's [inaudible 00:07:23] so look at that eye movement, right?
Kevin: Well, please. I just got a shutter.
Dr. Santelises: But that impacts trust, right? And so it really has been about building back trust. It's been about a posture of listening and hearing. But, you know, we have areas we can improve as well. You know, we're not perfect. It's not as if every school board meeting, you know, people come to testify to say, "Oh, you're just listening beautifully," right? We still have a ways to go as well. But it is important.
Kevin: Adrian Fenty started on my staff on the city council before we came here. And I knew Michelle Rhee, and I remember sitting there talking to them. And they were both talking about some of the initiatives, which, you know, a lot of us felt may make sense. And I remember saying to Adrian at the time, "You know you got to hug people before you change them."
Dr. Santelises: I love that.
Kevin: Because, you know, you can be all the way right, and you're gonna be all the way wrong if you're not hugging folks along the way. And people need to feel they're part of it. And I think they work toward that. But what I'm finding is today, because of the extremism in our politics, and extremism in terms of sort of this either-or mindset that is in, you know, public life that you're either with me or against me, there's no in-between, I think you have to go the extra mile. And when you're talking about changing hearts and minds in school districts, it's even more important. So, it's just interesting to hear you say that you put that as one of your top priorities ahead of these initiatives. And frankly, I think more school districts should do that.
Dr. Santelises: You are spot on what we've been talking about in planning for recovery, in planning for all of our young people to be back in schools with staff. Let me tell you, Kevin, overwhelmingly, what you just said, rings as true a week ago, when I was out in barbershops and boxing, you know, boxing clubs, you know, I've been out really trying to talk with folks to say what do we need to do to make sure all young people are back? And overwhelmingly, Kevin, what you just said was the resounding theme, it did not matter who I was speaking to, or what section of our city. When I said, "What do we need?" They said, "We want to know that there are folks that care, that are waiting for our families and our students when they come back." Like, we'll get them back and I have community organizers saying they're coming back. That's not the question. We're going to make sure they're back. Question is, will you all be ready for them when they come back?
Kevin: Now, how do you actualize that on the ground, classroom by classroom, teacher by teacher, school by school?
Dr. Santelises: You know, you can't touch...I wish I could touch every single one of our 10,000 employees and personally guarantee that each and every one of them understood the importance of moving the way that we've been talking about. But I don't have that. And so instead, you know, principles are a major lever, and what we signal to principles matters. The principles and classroom teachers are still the educators that families go to first, and the ones they trust the most. And they are our primary message carrier. So, really trying to emphasize that at that level, and then, you know, having hard discussions with some of my central team, who just should not be in front of people, Kevin, if nothing else, like, you might be really smart on this, we've had people who have worked through their own trauma the past year and a half. And what I said to supervisors is, some people need to sit down, some people do not need to be in front of people, but it really is the major point, you know, making sure it's a major leverage point. And you know this building the expectations because what you inspect, that's what you can expect. And so that's what we've been trying to do is really hone in on that and provide supports around that. But, you know, circle back with me in September and we'll see how we did that.
Kevin: You once said that quality curriculum is both windows and mirrors. And you have been a big advocate and proponent of having the right curriculum for kids in every classroom. Talk to me about the value of curriculum and how you instill better curriculum and usage of curriculum in your schools for students?
Dr. Santelises: Now, I really am a proponent of curriculum, and what I said once when somebody was pushing me on it, you know, curriculum alone can't change a child's learning experience. And I said that's absolutely true. I would never say it is only curriculum. But what I do know is that what a student learns, signals first what we think is important, and it goes back to what we were first talking about, Kevin, and that is, we don't know what young people are going to do, we don't know all of their hopes and dreams. And so it's our responsibility as a K-12 system, particularly one that serves large numbers of under-resourced communities and their children to make sure that they have a broad scope. And so they've got to be able to see themselves in the curriculum, which, you know, particularly for people of color has not been the case for too long. But they also need to be able to connect with larger traditions of learning, larger history, and then situate themselves within that larger arc.
Kevin: So, talk to me about the structure of schools. And I want to ask you specifically in a minute about the pandemic, but, you know, we've had this structure in place for a couple hundred years, people talk about that. At the end of the day, isn't it time to kind of revisit the structure of schools and classrooms and school districts, and I know, you've talked about how you can change in a way that's more beneficial to students and families. What are your thoughts around just the way schools are structured and how we deliver education services to kids?
Dr. Santelises: Some young people actually thrived in these last 18 months in certain areas when we broke down kind of the traditional notions of school, so traditional notions of space, traditional notions of time, traditional notions of how you demonstrate competency in an academic area, kind of separate or siloed from real-life, real work application. So, real examples, we had some of our alternative students, some of the students we have been least successful in educating at the high school level, who and...you know, I'll never forget, one principal called and said, "Dr. S, I have to tell you, some students who never turned in work are now turning in work because they've got this laptop, they submit the assignment, they're really clear that, 'Now I don't have to worry about somebody pulling me aside in a hallway for one minor violation, right? I can submit my work, get it in and actually go to a job, right, and still, you know, keep up.'" Or some students just liked the freedom of that. We had students who did better with the flexibility of being able to go to office hours.
So, you know, we had... you know, the notion of office hours as simple as it seems, for 5th graders was not widespread in every school in our district. That caught on like wildfire because of just the virtual space in the pandemic, and then we...our young people told us and are telling us, particularly, again, at the high school level, Kevin, that, you know, now that we've been gone for 18 months, never will forget a young lady who said to me, "With all due respect, Miss, I have friends who now have been working for over a year, and realize that, you know, they actually don't need to be in school to be making money, right?" And so how are we going to change the incentive structure, the engagement opportunities? And these are young people that are saying, if you can connect us just to the visibility in the work world, sooner that will actually then make what I'm doing today have more meaning, and help me to situate it. So, we're really going to be investing some of the federal dollars that are coming in, in these areas.
Kevin: So, this is the last question I want to ask you and it relates to the pandemic. This is what I really want to know. Did the pandemic create an inflection point in education? And if so, what should schools be doing differently to assure that all kids benefit and learn?
Dr. Santelises: Families are saying it's an inflection point for us, it may not be for you all. For schools, for those of us who are educators, it needs to be an inflection point. And when I talked to the colleagues I most respect sitting in this role like you did, we recognize it as well. You know, we have young people who were sitting at home...I shouldn't say sitting at home, they were incarcerated, who because of laptops and virtual classes, Kevin, were enrolled in University of Baltimore classes being incarcerated. And would tell me, "This is the first time in 12-plus years of schooling in Baltimore City that I finally feel engaged and invested in a real class. I don't feel like it's being dumbed down." And so we need to heed, like, what our public, what our customers, and even what our teachers are telling us. So, it is an inflection point. I hope we heed it as a field, I hope we don't think we're going back to whatever that normal was. And we finally make some serious gains and coverage of ground in really reducing some of the opportunity gaps that have existed in our field.
Kevin: Student-centered, personalized learning. This is an opportunity and it is folks like you who are going to get us there. Dr. Sonja Santelises, you are a jewel, keep doing what you're doing. And thanks for joining us.
Dr. Santelises: Thank you, Kevin. It's always good to see you.
Kevin: Okay. Take care.
Dr. Santelises: You too.
Kevin: Dr. Shari Camhi is the superintendent of Baldwin Union Free School District, and the president-elect of AASA, the School Superintendent Association. She started her career teaching in New York City, and her experience includes nearly 20 years in public school administration. Dr. Camhi is well known for her innovative, student-centered approach to education. Under her leadership, Baldwin's graduation rate has increased to 97%. She's been recognized by Ed Week as a leader to learn from and by the National School Public Relations Association as a new superintendent to watch. Dr. Camhi, thank you so much for joining us. I really appreciate you coming on to the show.
Dr. Camhi: You're very welcome. I'm excited to be here.
Kevin: So, I've read a lot about you, and you've had an incredible career. And I want to go back because I like our viewers and listeners to understand what motivates educators. You started as a teacher in New York City. And what was that like when you really started out?
Dr. Camhi: So, I started out as a teacher in New York City, frighteningly back in the '80s. I will say that my expectations as a teacher, going back then, as my expectations are now have not changed. I spent time in private industry. And I think that's an important context as well. I've been in and out of public education for my entire career. I've spent time in public education as a teacher and as an administrator. But I've also spent time in private industry, mostly in the educational technology world. I've also lived overseas working at the university level. So, it's not a conventional path, by any stretch of the imagination, but I think that gives me a different perspective than many educators.
Kevin: What drives you to keep that going? You said you're protesting change in all these years, a lot of people get burned out, a lot of people move on. How do you keep it going?
Dr. Camhi: I would say that the drive really comes from two things. It comes from my experience as a student, as a kid. I would describe my experience as fine. I was not the smartest kid in my class, and I was certainly not the smartest kid in my school. And when I started my doctoral program, I finally figured out why. And my children, my own children had a good experience in school. But I would say to you that two of the saddest days of my life were days that I had to teach my own children how to play the game of school. And by that I mean, their strengths of critical thinking and problem solving and digging deeper, were not strengths that were appreciated, or I don't want to say valued, but they weren't appreciated, and they weren't nourished. And the idea that standardized tests and multiple-choice tests measure success is such a limited view that we have to change that. If this past year and a half does not prove that, I do not know what will prove that.
Kevin: Which leads me to talk about your new role as the leader of AASA, which is the Superintendents Association. And for those who are listening, there are 13,000 school districts or more in the country, right around 13,000, maybe a little bit more. Ten thousand of those school districts are a member of AASA. It is by far the preeminent association that speaks for superintendents. And Dr. Camhi, you are the incoming president. You mentioned the standardized test, you know, the way we've gone about it, it's not really good for kids in terms of their future?
Dr. Camhi: I could not agree with you more. You know, it's interesting, because there is a group of folks out there that believe that without those kinds of tests, we actually fail in the area of equity. But I think that's a really narrow focus. What I have found is that our students that, on paper, do not excel, they don't excel because of the way they are assessed. And when you broaden the way that you look at student achievement, you open up the opportunities for every other child. And so what I hope will become a national conversation is really twofold. One is that we need to be more innovative in the way we approach education. We need to think about the experience, in school and out of school. We need to broaden the opportunities for students. You know, we talk about equity, and equity has a lot of different definitions. For me, equity is all about opportunity and creating opportunities for students. And those opportunities are going to be different for every student. So, to be able to consider creating multiple opportunities, so that regardless of who you are, as a young learner, there is a place for you to be successful.
Kevin: Yeah. And as you mentioned, critical thinking, problem-solving, skill development, being able to work in a group with peers, those are things that are different from the robotic, multiple-choice, check the box, how do we get there? How do we get more and more school leaders to embrace approaches that highlight those characteristics?
Dr. Camhi: So, I think the first two places that we need to start is in our state education departments because they dictate policy, and policy dictates the assessments and the accountability. And we need them to think differently about how they judge how well we're doing. You know that teachers are very proud of the work they do. And they are going to make sure that they are successful. And if the way that their success is measured is by standardized tests, then they are going to make sure their kids do well by standardized tests. The question is, what if standardized tests actually measure? And they certainly do not measure the ability of a student to be an engineer. They don't measure a student's ability to develop relationships or to communicate effectively.
So, I would say stop number one is our state education departments and looking at policy. I would say the second place that we really need to look at is higher education. Higher education is where we go for preparing our next generation of teachers, and they really need to be thinking about what are the skills that students need to be successful post-high school, post-college? And how do we prepare our teachers to create those opportunities for students. In Baldwin, for example, we hire new teachers every year, and they participate in a four-year cohort program, where we basically retrain them from the beginning. And when I say retrain, I mean everything from mindset to practice.
Kevin: How do they respond to this new training once they get beyond sort of this shock of, "Wait a minute, I thought I was ready."
Dr. Camhi: So, I am not sure that any teacher who comes out is ready. It is scary to be a teacher for the first time. I would say a couple things. Number one, because they are in a cohort, I think they feel very supported. They have each other as well as us. So, that definitely works. But I also think that they recognize the success they have with the tools they're learning. I can tell you that after every session, the teachers, especially in the beginning, right? First-year, they start out, they are like deer in headlights, they're frightened. And by the end of the first week, they are best friends, they're going out to lunch with each other, they're laughing, they're smiling, they feel more comfortable immediately. But they learn these methodologies, they see success with the methodologies. And that develops confidence. And so that is exactly what we need them to do. More than anything, they have fun. And when you have fun, you create an emotional environment that allows the learning to happen.
Kevin: Like you, I believe that the last year and a half has been a reset, in many ways for the world, and for individuals in the world. How's this reset going to impact education?
Dr. Camhi: I hope that there are several areas that have become common practice. So, the first is the way we use technology. For many years, we figured out how to fit technology in the way we taught. And I will tell you that does not work. Instead, what we really needed to do, and I think we have finally, not only figured it out but I think we've put it in practice is technology offers to us a different way of doing things. Technology is a great platform for collaborating. Technology is a great platform for creative thinking and for conjecturing. And so I think, and I actually do believe that the way we use technology will stick. So, that's a good thing.
Kevin: You haven't run away from innovation, you haven't run away from doing things differently in your district, you've run to the lion, and I think many people feel that's why you'll be a great leader, AASA. But how do you counsel your colleagues to overcome the fear of innovation, the fear of doing it differently?
Dr. Camhi: I am not here to prepare my students for my past, I am here to prepare them for their future. If we are not proactive in the way that we work with our students, then, you know, what exactly are we preparing them for? It is about being communicative with your public. It's about having a vision. It is about developing partnerships with universities and with businesses. Because first, you have to understand what future they're walking into. And then you need to plan for that future.
Kevin: Is our current structure, the classroom setting, the setup of schools, the organization, the school district hierarchy, is it built for the future? And if not, how would you change it?
Dr. Camhi: What I would love to see is I would love to see, and I believe that the latest initiative with AASA, with learning 2025 report that has just come out, I think that we need to identify those districts that are doing really innovative work. I don't mean good work, because there's a lot of districts doing really, really good work. It's all in your definition of good, right? But if you're thinking futuristic, you're thinking of learning toward the future, identify the districts that are doing that, fund them fully, and make them the examples for everybody else. Because it's really hard to think of a new idea. And it's really hard when you're in the middle of doing management stuff all the time to plan for the future. So, you know, my hope going forward is that those districts that are doing really good work are exemplified and are spotlighted so that we can all learn from them.
Kevin: So, this is the last question. This is what I really want to know. I'll give you some tongue twisters here. You know, as a superintendent of your district, how do you measure success?
Dr. Camhi: My measurement of success in many respects is simple. When I go into a classroom, if there's so much learning going on that the teacher doesn't know that I walked in, I'm happy because those kids are deeply engaged, my teachers are deeply engaged. If my students talk about experiences that they had, whether it's with a business partner, or in their classrooms with their teachers, that brings them joy and a love of learning and deeper understanding, not only of content but of skills that they can speak well, and they can conjecture, and they can create an argument for something that is a complex idea, then I know that we are successful. So, the short answer to your question is, I want my students to wake up every morning, push their parents out of the way and say, "Mom, Dad, I need to get to school today, because I'm excited for the most amazing day ahead of me," then, I know we're successful.
Kevin: Dr. Shari Camhi, I love the way you think. And I appreciate you joining the show. You keep doing what you're doing for the kids.
Dr. Camhi: Thank you. Thanks for spreading the word. I appreciate it.
Kevin: Thanks for joining "What I Want To Know." Be sure to follow and subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your favorite podcast app. And don't forget to write a review too. Explore other episodes and dive into our discussions on the future of education. I also encourage you to join the conversation and let me know what you want to know using #WIWTK on social media. That's #WIWTK on social media. For more information on Stride, visit stridelearning.com. I'm your host, Kevin P. Chavous. Thank you for joining, "What I Want To Know."
Dr. Sonja Santelises is the CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools. She has dedicated her 30-year career to urban education. Throughout her career as an educator, academic, and administrator, Sonja has stayed committed to her belief in the power of curriculum. She believes that when done right, curriculum can drive student engagement, career success, and can increase equity.
Dr. Shari Camhi is the Superintendent of Baldwin Union Free School District and the president-elect of The School Superintendents Association (AASA). She started her career teaching in New York City and has 20 years of experience in public school administration. Shari is well-known for her innovative, student-centered approach to education. Since 2014, Baldwin’s graduation rate increased to 97 percent under her leadership.
What I Want to Know
In this podcast, you will hear from leaders in education as we talk through learning solutions for homeschool, online school, education pathways, and topics tailored specifically to online students and parents.