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‘Trust is an underlying issue’ in families of color sending children back to school: CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools

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Dr. Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, joins Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Christoforous and Akiko Fujita to discuss the push to reopen schools and women in education.

Video Transcript

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Baltimore City schools welcomed thousands of students back to school buildings last week. It's the first time in nearly a year that students have been allowed back into the classroom. Joining us now to talk about it is Sonja Santelises. She is CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools.

And it's so good to see you, Sonja, because I know the last time we spoke, which was just a couple of months ago, kids were not back in the classroom. I know this just happened last week, but tell us how it's going so far and how are you keeping your teachers, your faculty, your staff safe.

SONJA SANTELISES: No, thanks for asking and I think the last time we spoke, we only had about 27 schools open for certain targeted groups of young people. Last week, we actually welcomed back across our school district kindergarten through second grade students. We'll be bringing back third through fifth grade students next week. And what we did was we had about a week before we invited staff back, teachers, school leaders, just so that everyone could get familiar with the new safety protocols.

When I was out last week, one of the things we heard over and over was just how better assured our folks felt knowing that they could see the air filters, they could see the air purifiers. Many had had the opportunity to be vaccinated. And this week, we're implementing a regular testing for both students and staff that will also help us keep families, keep young people and staff safe, in addition to things like masking and social distancing that we've had in place for some time.

AKIKO FUJITA: Sonja, when you think back to the early days of the pandemic, there was much concern from schools about the students that were essentially dropping off because they didn't have the types of access, digital access that was needed for remote learning. When you think about the students that are enrolled right now, how do those enrollment numbers compare to what you had pre-pandemic?

SONJA SANTELISES: No, that's a great question. So right now, we have about 25% of our families that have said they want to return in person. We know from previous experience in the fall that that number increases as families see that we are able to bring students back safely. So that's been a heavy, heavy focus for us.

Also, to your earlier point, what we've seen is that amongst that 25%, in some of our schools-- I was at a elementary, middle school last week, Stuart Hill Academy that has had large numbers of young people who have struggled with technology and what that school principal did and her team was they actually focused on the young people that had not been engaged.

So even though they only welcomed about 20% of their students back, what we found out of that 20% was large numbers of students that had been disconnected since the end of September or October. So it felt good to be in classrooms and see kindergarten and first graders who had not been to been connected to teachers for months actually be back in classrooms learning. So that was one of the highlights of last week for me.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: For sure. But having said that, you still have a large population within the Black and Latino communities that are, I guess, skeptical about sending their children back to school, given how this pandemic has disproportionately impacted them. What are you doing to address that reluctance?

SONJA SANTELISES: No, and it's a great question and something we've been focused on, really, since the late fall. We knew, and we knew that we had to have a special targeted slow and steady approach, particularly for our families of color. Because trust is an underlying issue, and we saw that across the country. It was true in Baltimore. And I think our slow and steady approach has actually narrowed some of those gaps for us.

So if you look at the 25% of students that are back in school actually are Latino students are overrepresented in the numbers, the percentage of students returning relative to their number in the population. We're still behind for African-American students, but unlike some districts where you have a 20% to 30% gap in the percentage of Black students returning, we still see a gap, and we're working on that. But that gap is 10%.

And I think a lot of that has to do with the very deliberate messaging. We've been saying to parents and families, we know you need to see first. So we have expanded the amount of time that families can opt in. Because we had a number of our families of color tell us we want to see first. We want to make sure things are in place. So we've been doing virtual open houses and in person socially distanced open houses. These are families who have good reason not to trust public education systems, as well as public health institutions.

And so, what that means is we have to go the extra mile. And it's part of why we committed and invested in going beyond just the CDC guidelines and doing early work around ventilation and testing and vaccination for teachers.

AKIKO FUJITA: How do you assess the knowledge gap a year into this pandemic? You've got students finally coming back to in-person classes, but you're talking about a year of uneven learning on and off online. How much of a setback do you see as a result of that?

SONJA SANTELISES: No, it's one of the things that we've really tried to pay attention to early on. We see increased chronic absenteeism rate, so that's increased numbers of students who are away from school five days or more each month. And so, as early as the end of October, we began targeting our outreach to these families and young people. Because we know that young people that are not in school, either virtually or in person, are more likely to be behind.

The other piece that we do is we've been looking at some of our progress monitoring interim assessments. And then, quite frankly, we've also been getting feedback from teachers. So one of our-- I'll never forget-- an English as a second language learner teachers said that she could tell the difference in terms of skill acquisition for her ESL students, her English language learner students, who were in person, were outpacing their virtual colleagues by as much as three to four months. So we will use a combination of formal assessments that we have in place as a district, along with teacher assessments, just teacher knowledge.

And then, quite frankly, we have young people for whom, you know, their ground in learning is going to need to be made up due to other factors. We have eight student whose GPAs have dropped not because they haven't-- you know, because they haven't wanted to log in, but because, frankly, they've taken on extra jobs, or their family has had to move multiple times. Or their family is made up of front line workers who, frankly, never got a chance to work virtually. And so, their households are more exposed.

So what we're trying to bring is a far more nuanced and in-depth assessment of where young people are, as opposed to just saying this one measure says you're eight months behind, and you're going to forever be eight months behind. It's really pushing us to have a far more personalized knowledge of where young people are and where their families are.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: Now I want to switch gears here for a moment and talk about the gender gap within education. When you look at our country, there are about 14,000 school superintendents and less than 2,000 of them are women. And you compare that to K through 12 educators, where more than 70% are women. Sonja, why do you think that's the case? And what can we do to start to change those numbers?

SONJA SANTELISES: So I think part of what we're seeing is part of what we've seen across industries. I think one of the things that we have to continue to reckon with is how people perceive women in the top seat. One of the things that I say is, I had far less push on my role within district leadership when I was the chief academic officer, but something changes when people have to grapple with a woman who is sitting in the top seat. And I think that is still something in education that we battle with despite the fact that we have overwhelmingly-- those figures you just showed-- overwhelmingly large numbers of women who have the on ground knowledge and experience based on their role in schools.

And then I think the second piece is, we've got to make sure that we've got-- we have the pipelines to actually prepare women for sitting in Cabinet level and either CEO or superintendent seats. I was very, very blessed that I actually went through executive level education and training.

And so, because I was part of the Harvard superintendents program, because there are other programs run by organizations like Chiefs for Change that actually prepare aspiring leaders, I think we have to commit to making sure that women see themselves as prepared and actually are prepared to be able to sit in, frankly, the superintendent/CEO seat. We have to be deliberate about it. And where we have had deliberate investment in female leadership, we have seen that we have women and people-- and women of color who are more than qualified to step up and actually lead from this role.

ALEXIS CHRISTOFOROUS: All right, Sonja Santelises, CEO of Baltimore City Public Schools, thanks for being with us, and best of luck getting all the students K through 12 back into the classroom safely.