Teaching qualifications

Boston had a turnstile of superintendents. Why can’t BPS keep them?

On top of all that, imagine what it must be like for kids: Most seventh graders will probably see their fifth superintendent this fall.

“It’s disheartening,” said Dorchester’s mother, Vanesa Morales, who pulled her 11-year-old son out of the Boston school system two years ago to go to school in Wellesley through the Metco program. “It’s not fair to the students – all the changes and transitions.”

No surprise, there’s plenty of finger-pointing about how and why Boston is cementing its reputation as hot superintendents. Theories range from the impenetrable and hidden from the city political landscape to the mayor’s excessive control over education policy to the lack of experience of recent superintendents. (No more Cassellius ni his predecessor Tommy Chang had previously led a large urban system.)

“No other city in the Commonwealth has the mix of voices and powerful constituencies – some official, most unofficial – that will determine the type of day [a superintendent] will have and whether or not you will be able to execute your program,” said Samuel Acevedo, executive director of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps first-generation youth of color thrive in the university, and a member of the last two superintendent search committees. “It’s a recipe for constant failure.”

Boston school superintendent Brenda Cassellius helped expel children from Nathan Hale Elementary School after teaching there in January.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Team

Cassellius and Chang held office about half as long as superintendents nationwide, according to a 2018 report on the longevity of Broad Center superintendents when it operated as a nonprofit in Los Angeles. He found that over the past 15 years, superintendents of the 100 largest school districts left their jobs after an average of about six years.

Boston’s move to an appointed committee in 1992 was supposed to provide leadership stability — and initially it did. During Thomas M. Menino’s 20-year term as mayor, his appointed school board hired two superintendents: Thomas Payzant who served 11 years and Carol Johnson who served six years.

Both were rich in experience, and both, above all, had the full and patient support of the mayor. Payzant had been a former assistant secretary in the US Department of Education and had previously worked as a superintendent in several districts, including Oklahoma City and San Diego. Johnson had been a superintendent in Memphis and Minneapolis.

“Mayor Menino let me be superintendent,” Johnson said. “He gave his opinion on ideas and I gave my opinion. But I didn’t feel obligated to do anything. … And he repeatedly said, “I’m not an educator, you’ll have to tell me from an educational perspective what’s in the best interests of the students.”

And she said he would fight for the resources the schools needed because he felt he owned the success of the system.

Menino challenged the people of Boston in 1996 during a State of the City address “judge me harshly” if the schools did not improve. Voters were heading to the polls to decide whether to return to an elected school committee, and in the end they rejected the idea and decided to give Menino a chance to fix the school system.

A Boston School Board meeting was held to choose a new superintendent in 2015. The Boston Globe/Independent Globe

Last fall, however, voters overwhelmingly approved a non-binding referendum calling for a return to an elected school committee and the city council drafts a proposal in response. Lisa Green, Bostonians chairperson for an elected school board, said the change was necessary because Boston mayors over the years have exercised too much control over BPS.

“There have been many instances of superintendents acting on their publicly stated agendas, only to be derailed by mayors rushing in when it conflicts with their political interests,” Green said.

Many education advocates and parents say Walsh took personal control of the school system to another level and at times seemed to undermine its superintendents and appointed school committee.

“It’s smoke, mirrors and puppets,” said a former Boston Public Schools Central Office administrator, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of professional harm. “It would be better if they just called it that. Be explicit. It is a school system controlled by the mayor.

One of Walsh’s first actions was to create a “Chief of Education”, a Cabinet-level position based at City Hall that many BPS supporters saw as an attempt to remove power from the superintendent. . The education chief oversaw some high-profile academic initiatives, including the expansion of pre-kindergarten and the revamping of high schools.

City Hall also played an important role in the development of BuildBPS, a billion-dollar long-term plan spurred by a campaign promise by the mayor to renovate and replace schools. The plan fueled fears the mayor was quietly planning to close some schools — as the district grapples with a steep drop in enrollment — but denied.

And there were several instances where Walsh publicly criticized Chang. Walsh, for example, rejected Chang’s attempt to change exam school admission requirements after learning in a 2016 news report that BPS had assembled an advisory committee to look into the matter, saying, “I don’t don’t think it’s the right time. talk about. The committee never met again.

Public criticism of Walsh followed again in 2017 after he chastised Chang for not telling him about concerns raised by the IRS about the handling of student activities funds, even though those concerns were part of a citywide IRS audit run by City Hall.

“Tommy Chang was not a structure and operations guy,” said former school board member Miren Uriarte. “We hired him because he was a strong instructional leader and then asked him to do BuildBPS. … We set people up to fail.

Hallways were empty in February 2021 as students at Boston International High School worked remotely. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

During Cassellius’ tenure, Walsh played an important role in union negotiations and decisions about how and when to reopen schools in the fall of 2020.

“He basically took over the [reopening] process,” said the former central office administrator.

But long before that, there were signs that Cassellius would struggle to assert his authority. According to former school committee member Hardin Coleman, Cassellius was told she could not hire a large team of people from outside Boston to support her in the central office. The management team had just been reshuffled by the acting superintendent, Laura Perille.

“She couldn’t bring her own,” Coleman said. “That’s why she failed to build a team. … She had a hard time finding good people.

Cassellius had other challenges as well. She worked for three different mayors and three different school committee chairs in two and a half years, while guiding the school district through a historic pandemic. and an era of racial reckoning.

It has also scored victories along the way, including increasing high school graduation requirements and revising exam school admissions requirements.

In a letter to the community this month announcing his departure, Cassellius offered a brilliant gloss over his tumultuous tenure. She wrote that she was “lucky to have worked alongside three dedicated mayors who served as thought partners, mentors and friends.”

However, some issues that complicate the lives of superintendents go beyond politics. The district, under the leadership of numerous superintendents, has struggled with basic operations, such as keeping buses running on time and providing students with disabilities and those learning English with the services they need to to succeed.

And the threat of state receivership looms over the district.

Last year, former school board member Ernani DeAraujo recommended restructuring the superintendent’s job if operational improvements were not made. The city should hire “a city manager to manage the operational aspects of the BPS and the superintendent will serve under the manager as the strategic vision manager, which directly suits his greatest strengths,” he wrote in the letter. performance evaluation of Cassellius.

Some blame Cassellius’ performance and short duration on the fact that the city did not follow its own stated requirements for the position. When Cassellius was hired in 2019, minimum qualifications included at least five years as a superintendent. Cassellius spent less than a year leading a district with two schools, but eight years as Minnesota commissioner of education.

Boston will be looking for a superintendent during a time of great upheaval in public schools across the country. Many superintendents are retiring, exhausted by the pandemic, staffing shortages and political struggles in their communities. About a quarter of major cities are looking for new superintendents.

Next month, the school board will appoint a “small and focused” search committee to lead the search process for the next superintendent.

What remains unclear is what influence Mayor Michelle Wu will have on this research and what kind of relationship she will have. have with the chosen candidate.

Councilwoman Julia Mejia, who leads the council’s education committee, said Wu must commit in writing to the next superintendent, promising to do whatever it takes to support improvement efforts and leadership. of his district.

“It’s a revolving door,” Mejia said. “How can we move the work forward if we are in constant reset mode? »

Bianca Vázquez Toness can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. James Vaznis can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.