Selecting a new superintendent of the Boston Public Schools is one of the most important decisions in our city this year and for years to come. For this reason, the Boston Coalition for Education Equity has engaged deeply in learning about the finalists by attending public meetings, sharing articles and reviewing video links about their work, as well as liaising with our members and colleagues in Boston and across the country. The Coalition includes more than a dozen community and civil rights organizations. We come to this search for a BPS superintendent with different perspectives, with stakeholders in different parts of Boston, and with different priorities for superintendent selection criteria. Nonetheless, one conclusion is clear to all of us.
We are dismayed at the process itself and disappointed in its implementation by the school committee. The search committee was not representative, the final public phase was rushed, and the School Committee’s own job description of five years’ experience as a school superintendent was ignored. Some of us believe the inequities in the process are so significant that the candidate pool should be revisited. If nothing else, this process helped to solidify the lack of confidence many of us have in the school committee structure.
However, despite this flawed process, most of our organizations believe that one of the finalists–Dr. Brenda Cassellius–has demonstrated that she has the experience necessary to be an effective leader in advancing equity and educational quality in the Boston Public Schools. Though she was an associate superintendent of an urban school district and superintendent of a smaller district for a short period of time, she was the Commissioner of Education in Minnesota for eight years, and from that we can gauge the efficacy of her executive leadership style and operational skills.
How the search process was flawed
The Search Committee was mostly made up of individuals chosen by the Mayor and the mayor-appointed School Committee to meet their objectives, rather than representatives of groups with independent voices who are directly involved in the schools. For example, the Citywide Parent Council, one of the district’s three officially recognized parent organizations that are tasked with representing Boston Public Schools families, was denied representation. Additionally, there was not a single independent Black parent on the Committee who was not also an employee of BPS.
The final, public stage of the process was carried out in a way designed to minimize family and community engagement: The finalists were announced during school vacation week, and the interviews were scheduled immediately afterward. Additionally, there was no child care provided to make it possible for more families to attend the interviews. The result: In the interviews supposedly organized for parent and community engagement, the lack of effective engagement resulted in a room with a handful of residents each night and scores of empty seats.
Then families had just five days to provide meaningful feedback through a survey. When the survey was initially rolled out, it was available in English language only. This in a district where 48 percent of students are in homes where English is not the first language. In short, BPS knows how to engage communities across the city. In this most important decision, the City made a conscious decision to not fully engage the community and not to create the conditions for working-class families to participate.
Why Dr. Brenda Cassellius would provide BPS with the best opportunity for success.
Nevertheless, we understand the need for our city to move forward in the best interest of children and to work together to address some of our most pressing challenges. We believe that Dr. Cassellius has the best and most promising chance of doing that. Here is why:
For years, Boston Public Schools leaders have imposed, or attempted to impose, changes from the top down prioritizing quantitative data over qualitative data. Any commitment to equity and racial equality requires close attention to both. Dr. Cassellius has demonstrated through her work and in her espoused values that she can lead with authentic inclusion and that she is not afraid of having more seats at the table to bring about much-needed change. In her interview, she pledged to start by finding out from those directly involved what has worked and what has not worked, and to tap into their knowledge in crafting policies to improve the education of all BPS students.
In this city, the success of a superintendent is driven largely by her ability to understand and successfully navigate deep political waters. Eight years as a state education commissioner, with a reputation for getting the right things done for children of color, English language learners, and those with disabilities, serve as evidence that Dr. Cassellius has the political chops to move this district forward.
As Education Commissioner in Minnesota, she won agreement from a wide range of legislators for the funds needed to expand preschool.
Even before her years in state government, she used her executive and operational skills to advance equity for the children of Memphis, Tennessee, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Memphis, she eliminated corporal punishment, turning around a culture where “spare the rod and spoil the child” was assumed to be wisdom.
In Minneapolis, she worked with the elected school committee to change policy to eliminate selective admissions criteria for the few high schools with International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement curricula and extended these high-level academic programs to all comprehensive high schools, evidencing a strong commitment to “tearing down fences” and removing barriers to high-quality education--using a racial equity lens so that more students would be better prepared for college or career upon high school graduation.
Dr. Cassellius has demonstrated an ability to see students as whole individuals, to see schools as whole communities, and to support policies that can be life-changing for students. Recognizing that there are many difficult decisions ahead, we believe Dr. Cassellius has the greatest potential to be the leader BPS needs. She offers a vision for this district that aligns with our values and is coupled with experience, skills, and the leadership style to achieve that vision. We look forward to working with her for the benefit of all students.
Download the statement here.