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New superintendent will face old problems

Threat of DESE intervention looms over state’s largest school system

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
New superintendent will face old problems
Mayor Michelle Wu and BPS Superintendent Brenda Cassellius stop by the Margarita Muniz Academy in Jamaica Plain in January. PHOTO: MAYOR’S OFFICE

During her two-and-a-half years in office, outgoing Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius has been able to implement some major reforms, including a “quality guarantee” of basic funding for all schools that ensured every school had full-time nurses, social workers and family liaisons.

On her watch, former Mayor Martin Walsh committed to $100 million in increased funding, augmenting the district’s now-$1.3 billion budget to invest in the quality guarantee and expand access to libraries, provide social-emotional supports and, as the COVID pandemic set in, make needed upgrades to air quality in schools.

Yet among the many challenges that have marked Cassellius’ short tenure is the looming threat of a partial district takeover by state Secretary of Elementary and Secondary Education Jeff Riley.

That threat, based on a cohort of 34 schools in Boston whose students score in the lowest 10% on the state’s standardized test, will be among the top challenges facing the city’s next superintendent.

Outgoing Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius during a 2021 press conference. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

In the coming weeks, officials in the Wu administration and education activists will likely articulate the qualities they would like to see in the next BPS superintendent. That next superintendent may come in with big ideas on how to improve the city’s schools. Yet if Cassellius’ time in Boston, and the experience of her predecessor, Tommy Chang, who also left before the end of his contract, are any indication, state and federal mandates, local politics and ongoing initiatives undertaken by past superintendents will do much to shape the next superintendent’s tenure.

State mandates

In 2019, just months into her time in Boston, Cassellius instituted a moratorium on the district’s standardized assessments. At the time, BPS students were taking as many as 30 standardized tests in a 180-day school year — spending one-in-six days on assessments.

But in 2020, as the pandemic set in and a Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) audit gave a scathing assessment of BPS, Cassellius signed a memorandum of understanding with the state agency, agreeing to improve test scores at the 34 BPS schools where students’ scores were among the lowest 10% in the state.

Yet that intervention came with just $4 million in supplementary funding, in contrast to the $100 million former Mayor Walsh committed to Cassellius’ plan for BPS schools.

The state’s checkered record of interventions — districts in Lawrence, Holyoke and Southbridge remain ranked among the lowest 10% in the state after years in receivership — hasn’t deterred Riley from deploying the threat. Last week, in a meeting with the Boston Teachers Union membership, Wu said that Riley brought up receivership during their first face-to-face meeting.

BTU President Jessica Tang told the Banner, “What the state does, unfortunately, is create accountability measures that are oftentimes a distraction from and misaligned with students’ needs. Their measures become barriers instead of supports.”

State funding, which once accounted for more than 30% of the BPS budget, now makes up less than 10% — yet state mandates such as the testing regime weigh heavily on local districts.

Superintendents in districts such as Boston that have low-income student populations and large percentages of English language learners and students with disabilities commonly chafe at the state’s assessment system, which compares them with districts that have higher-income students, noted Thomas Scott, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“When you’re making comparisons with other districts, it doesn’t feel fair,” he said. “The state has a punitive response.”

Most recently, Cassellius clashed with Riley over the state’s refusal to count remote learning days toward the 180 days of in-class instruction districts are required to provide, after the Curley School in Jamaica Plain closed for 10 days after a COVID outbreak in the building.

The same pressure Cassellius faces from state mandates is showing up in classrooms, where teachers are grappling with an extraordinary level of need, according to McCormack School teacher Neema Avashia. While students could benefit from increased social-emotional supports, DESE is instead pushing for schools to make up for what some see as learning time lost during remote instruction.

Avashia says teaching is emotionally draining when students’ needs in the moment go far beyond the curriculum.

“You end up denying the humanity of the people in front of you and it takes a toll on your soul,” she said. “There’s very palpable pain in young people. There’s very palpable pain in my colleagues.”

Past initiatives

In addition to the threat of receivership, Boston’s next superintendent will inherit plans hatched from City Hall and BPS headquarters that will require action.

“There are multiple initiatives in varying stages of implementation that this person will take over,” said former City Councilor Tito Jackson, who served as chair of the body’s Education Committee while in office.

Those initiatives include the district’s mostly completed push to eliminate middle schools and align remaining schools with consistent K-6 and 7-12 grade configurations, the ongoing reforms to the city’s exam school admissions policy, and the Walsh administration’s 10-year, $1 billion BuildBPS initiative to construct new schools and make renovations to the district’s existing buildings, two-thirds of which were constructed before 1945.

Add to that recent pandemic-era building improvement projects, most of which are centered around improving air quality in buildings, most of which rely on windows for ventilation.

“In Boston, the standard operating procedure, even during winter, is for the windows to be open to four inches,” Jackson said.

Since Walsh launched BuildBPS in 2016, the city has seen more school closures than buildings opened or renovated. The West Roxbury Education Complex building closed in 2019, the Edwards Middle School closed last year and the Horace Mann, Jackson Mann, and the Timilty Middle School are slated to close this year.

The closures, which have come in a steady drip over the last 20 years, come as the district’s student enrollment has declined, dropping to 46,196 in the current school year — down from 50,480 in the 2019-2020 school year. As the low-income families who make up the majority of the district’s school population face rising rents and leave the city, the next superintendent may likely face pressure to execute more closures and consolidations.

Political interference

One headwind a new superintendent may find less daunting than their predecessors did is local political interventions in district policy. Chang lost a high-profile battle to change high school start times — widely demanded by parents and health experts who advocated for later start times to match the sleep needs of teenagers — after a botched roll-out that surprised many with changes even to elementary school schedules.

And former superintendents including Chang and interim Superintendent Laura Perille faced immediate backlash when they proposed changes to the city’s exam school admissions policy.

But during the pandemic, as the exam that determined eligibility for the three selective high schools became difficult to administer in person, Cassellius, backed by a coalition of civil rights groups and progressive elected officials, was able to push through changes to admissions policies for those schools. The new, less exam-centered policies have already produced greater racial and socio-economic diversity in the most recent entering classes, over protests of some white elected officials and in the face of a lawsuit from West Roxbury parents.

It’s unclear whether to what extent the Wu administration will exert pressure on the next superintendent. So far, Wu has not articulated a detailed vision for Boston’s schools. Her focus, she says, is on finding a new superintendent.

“I share a sense of urgency with many of the leaders and other stakeholders that I’ve spoken to with families across the district that we really need to not only keep up progress but accelerate it in Boston Public Schools because there has just been so much stress and so many of the disparities have been deepened during the pandemic,” she told GBH Morning Edition hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegal Monday.