Like most people advocating for better and more equitable public education in Boston the Parent Imperfect has become mildly obsessed with the search for a new superintendent for the Boston Public Schools. Anyone paying attention knows that this is a really important hire for all families depending on the BPS for the education of our children. This week is crunch time. On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, April 22-24, the three finalists put forward by the Search Committee (Brenda Cassellius, Marie Izquierdo and Oscar Santos) will be in Boston for public meetings regarding the position. What follows is an Open Letter to these three educational leaders.
Dear Brenda Cassellius, Marie Izquierdo and Oscar Santos,
First of all, I congratulate you for being selected as finalists in the search for a new superintendent of the Boston Public Schools (BPS). I thank you for your long-term commitment to public education and further congratulate you for all of your accomplishments in building an institution that holds the key to the preservation of what remains of democracy in our country.
I write to you as a parent of children in the BPS since 2001. During that time, district leaders have come and gone. I have seen four BPS Superintendents and three interims (one of the Supers was also an interim). I have been an active parent at the Rafael Hernández dual language immersion school in Roxbury, the James W. Hennigan School in Jamaica Plain, the Washington Irving Middle School in Roslindale (soon to be shuttered as part of “Build BPS”) and Boston Latin School in the Fenway (the nation’s oldest public school). I am a founding member of the parent advocacy organization, Quality Education for Every Student (QUEST) and a board member of the statewide advocacy group, Citizens for Public Schools. I have also been spewing out this blog for almost ten years. I write to you today representing no one but that blogger, and I, alone, am responsible for my confusions.
You have already been through several discussion with the Search Committee and others about this role. This coming week, each of you will spend a full day walking a gauntlet of public interviews and panel discussions with a variety of BPS stakeholders. Good luck! If you are still interested in the job after your Day of Living Dangerously, you will have gained even more of my respect (and concern). You will be meeting with great people from across the city, but do keep in mind that these people were hand-picked to participate in carefully choreographed meetings while you are in town. I write to offer a perspective that you may not have heard from the Search Committee and are unlikely to hear during your visit.
You consider this position at a critical time in the history of the BPS. The next Super will have much to say about the next act in the drama. Boston is one of the country’s great cities, but it is also one of its most unequal ones. It has a school system that reflects that identity…great, but grossly unequal. The number one task of the next Super will be to address those gaps, but s/he will do so in a context of ongoing budget shortfalls that directly affect schools, the resegregation of our schools and the increasing presence of private actors (with private interests) in the provision of public education services. In addition, the physical state of our school buildings is alarming. Two years after the launch of BuildBPS, a program allegedly designed to “bring Boston’s schools into the 21st century,” the District has given much more attention to pushing forward with unpopular school closings than it has to building community support for an exciting plan for revitalizing school facilities.
In the most supportive of political environments, the next Super would face a daunting task, but few would accuse our city of having a political environment supportive of public education. In Boston, the mayor and his (it’s always been a boys’ office) people have tremendous influence over all that goes on here, especially in our schools. During his original campaign, the current Mayor freely admitted that his knowledge of public education was limited to what he had learned as a board member of a local charter school (Seriously, Marty?). He has learned some things about public education on the job, but should still be deferring to district leadership on all issues of educational policy. However, this mayor is not willing to defer to anyone on decisions related to the biggest piñata in the City budget. He has an agenda for the schools, consistent with his agenda for the future of the entire city. Some aspects of that educational agenda make perfect sense from the perspective of addressing issues of quality and equity in the system, but many others clearly do not.
The Mayor and his people will choose which one of you (if any) is offered this job. They will likely shy away from anyone with a persona that will cast the sort of shadow over City Hall that the Winthrop Square high-rises will cast over the Boston Common. Be careful not to be too impressive. Shadow or not, dealing with City Hall will be a huge part of the job of the next Super. The Mayor appoints the School Committee and committee members are accountable only to him. Those members who differ in substance with the “program” quickly find themselves not invited back to the table, or find that they are in such an untenable position that it is better to leave of their own accord. I believe that differences with City Hall over educational policy (and the Mayor’s penchant for “passing the buck” to Dr. Chang and the BPS on controversial issues) had much more to do with the previous Super’s decision to take the $$$ and walk than any “performance” issues.
So in this context, what does Boston need in its next Superintendent? For me, the times demand:
1. A VISIONARY EDUCATOR capable of listening to, gaining the confidence of and working with all stakeholders to develop and implement a vision for high-quality education for all in Boston. As in many places, the biggest gaps in educational opportunity in Boston are racial gaps, so the vision must be, first and foremost, a vision of racial equity.
2. A COMPELLING EDUCATIONAL ADVOCATE AND COMMUNICATOR who can be an effective champion for Boston’s public schools in the face of serious threats to their mission(s) and resources. This does not mean that an effective Super must be “against” any kind of schools, but s/he must be a fierce advocate for resources and political support for public schools.
3. AN EFFECTIVE SERVANT-LEADER able to inspire all workers in a one-billion-dollar bureaucratic system to offer their energy and best ideas to the enormous task of building better and more equitable school communities.
4. A SKILLFUL DIPOMAT with the political aptitude and educational credibility to successfully negotiate differences between an educational agenda emerging from school communities and political agendas balancing educational goals with political interests.
The job description for this role included some, but not all, of these elements. Those who will decide on Boston’s next Super may well have other priorities, but I assure you that someone with these characteristics would have broad support among those most directly involved in the city’s schools. Such a person would also have the opportunity to create something in Boston that can serve as an example for urban systems around the country. Again, best of luck, whatever your next step may be.