Baltimore schools' interim CEO has 'passion with a punch'

  • Tisha Edwards, Baltimore City schools interim CEO
Tisha Edwards, Baltimore City schools interim CEO (Barbara Haddock Taylor…)
June 29, 2013|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

In walks Tisha Edwards, a parade of teenagers in her wake.

The conference room in Baltimore school headquarters is full of staff and community stakeholders there to tell the new interim schools CEO what she wants to know. But she introduces the half-dozen "special guests" who will tell her what she needs to hear.

"I feel like students give me the best advice, because they're not on the payroll," she tells the work group on the student dress code. "They'll tell me how it really is."

That up-front style, many say, has made Edwards a competent if sometimes divisive figure since she became former schools CEO Andrés Alonso's right-hand woman four years ago.

As his chief of staff, she worked behind the scenes to orchestrate details of the largest reforms the district had seen in decades. But she also was the facilitator of the resulting shake-ups, and has taken heat for the fallout.

"I think we all agree that we all have benefited from the vision of the board and Alonso and the take-no-prisoners approach to move ahead," says Tom Wilcox, president and CEO of the Baltimore Community Foundation, who has known Edwards for more than a decade.

"But someone's had to keep the house in order, do the inside jobs and do the dirty work. And Tisha has been a tirelessly loyal actor on behalf of Dr. Alonso on the one hand, and attentive to the many people and the factions that occur internally as all of this action occurred."

She has drawn support from the school system's major unions, though she was called a "bully" in a widely circulated anonymous letter protesting her appointment, a rare public criticism of her leadership style. Edwards resents that word in the workplace, just as she resents when girls with strong personalities are called "bossy."

"I am going to push you and make you to take responsibility, just like I have to, for what happens to children in this system," she says. "I'm not trying to be a bully. But I am trying to get results, and that's not always going to happen in a love letter."

Edwards, 42, signed a $225,000 contract to begin serving as interim CEO on July 1 while the city school board conducts a national search for a permanent leader.

She acknowledges that her self-described style — "passion with a punch" — will need to be refined.

"I've got to figure out how to have passion and soften my punch," she says. "That's going to be a work in progress for me."

The compassion of a social worker, the purpose of a lawyer and a calling to improve the lives of children led Edwards to public education. She came to the system as a high school principal, a position she believes she was hired for initially because she wasn't a career educator.

"I react in this work like I'm somebody's momma," she says. "And that can be a good thing on some days. And a bad thing on some days. But every day, anything I do, I do because I love children."

Alonso says the strengths he saw when he hired her — her intuition about how schools work, how the central office works, and what parents and kids want in schools — will be her greatest assets.

And her "success will stem from the fact that she will not do the job to keep the job," says Alonso, who led the district for six years. "She will do the job to do right for kids."

While union, political and community leaders have campaigned for her to become the permanent appointee, Edwards said she's hoping only to add "successful transition" to her resume.

And that's no small task. She has a new curriculum, a high-stakes evaluation system and a landmark plan to overhaul school facilities to set in motion.

"It's only one year, so I have to be realistic about what I can accomplish," she says. "And what I can accomplish is the work we've been doing."

She pauses to think for a moment.

"And I want to get out of audit hell," she says with a laugh, referring to two audits released in the past year that have raised questions about fiscal management in the school system.

Though she's not looking to overhaul Alonso's reforms, she wants to make her mark on them.

As the work group meeting on dress codes comes to a close, the students say the biggest challenge to the uniform policy is that they often can't afford what is expected of them.

Edwards nods, then doles out a dose of empathy and accountability.

"As a principal, I have a problem if you can't afford a uniform but you have a Louis Vuitton case for your iPad," she says. "But the whole child piece — we're losing that, and I want to get that back."

Cue Executive Order No. 1.

"I would like to start a campaign fund for school uniforms," she announces to her staff. "My goal is to raise a half-million dollars, at least. I'd like to get that set up by the fall."

Smiles creep up on some faces. Eyes widen on others.

"We're over by three minutes," she says, standing up abruptly, with a smile. "Anything else?"

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