The fourth-graders, staying cool under a shady tree at Jamaica Pond one recent afternoon, appeared starstruck as Superintendent Carol R. Johnson visited their summer program.
“I met you in the second grade at the Haley,” exclaimed one girl. “I see you on TV,” said another with a smile.
After chatting a while, Johnson told them she was retiring, and quickly shifted the spotlight to her interim replacement.
“Here, meet Mr. McDonough,” said Johnson, as she stepped aside.
Scenes like this — a farewell and a welcome rolled into one visit — have been playing out across Boston this summer as Johnson prepares to officially leave her post Friday after six years on the job.
With each passing day this summer, Johnson has been relinquishing more control of the 57,000-student system to John McDonough, a four-decade veteran of the school system who will fill in until a new superintendent is chosen. Her photo and biography already have been deleted from the School Department’s homepage, replaced in late July with ones for McDonough, who most recently served as chief financial officer.
Many teachers, parents, and education advocates hope that McDonough, who has a reputation for being honest and fair, can push the school system forward during a period of uncertainty.
A rocky transition could be disastrous for the School Department as it rolls out new initiatives, observers say. The School Department, for instance, has been executing a more rigorous teacher-evaluation system, is confronting rapid enrollment growth in its early grades but a glut of space in its high schools, and will be implementing the biggest change in the city’s student-assignment system in 25 years, which will let more students attend schools closer to their homes.
“McDonough equals stability for most of us who work with him in the Boston public schools. Everybody trusts John McDonough to do the right thing in any given situation,” said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit partnership between the city, businesses, and educational institutions. “Without him, it would be a much more challenging transition.”
For her part, Johnson will be remembered for her strengths as an academic leader. Her early passion to keep more students in school led to the city’s lowest dropout rate in three decades; her love of the arts brought back music and art programs to dozens of schools across the city; and her desire for more students to be successful in college fueled a proliferation of college-level courses in the city’s high schools.
But she also will be remembered for some notable administrative missteps and questionable personnel decisions.
On the operations side, two school years were marked by chronically late buses, ill-conceived facility proposals, and a tendency to pitch proposals only to pull them back under public outcry.
Johnson initially stood by a headmaster in 2011 after he was arrested for allegedly assaulting his wife and wrote a letter of support to a judge. Johnson later apologized, after dozens of parents called for her ouster.
The timing of picking a full-time replacement for Johnson is becoming increasingly unclear. In a city where the mayor carries considerable clout in choosing a new superintendent, the 12 candidates seeking to replace Thomas M. Menino differ sharply on whether a superintendent search should begin before or after the November election.
Boston has pulled an interim superintendent from within its ranks before. After Thomas Payzant retired in summer 2006, Michael Contompasis, the district’s then-chief operating officer, stepped in until Johnson came aboard in August 2007.
McDonough said Wednesday he has told the School Committee he would not be a candidate to stay on as superintendent long-term.
Some organizations see the transition to a new schools chief as an opportunity for the leadership to embrace issues that they say need more attention.
The Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts is hoping McDonough will devise a plan to reverse a troubling employment decline of black and Latino teachers and step up efforts to close gaps in achievement among students of different backgrounds.
“I am hoping that we will see an increase in attention to some of the issues,” said Barbara Fields, a member of the organization who worked with McDonough when she was the district’s equity officer. “He’s a straight shooter. He will tell the truth.”
Some groups are worried that new initiatives could get lost in the transition. The Boston Parent Organizing Network will push McDonough to implement a new student conduct policy that the School Committee is expected to approve in the fall. The measure should, among other things, ensure that students on suspension receive school work so they do not fall behind.
The transition in leadership officially began on July 1, when McDonough took over as interim superintendent at an annual salary of $250,000. His ascension to the top job, while Johnson is still here, means Boston has been paying two superintendent salaries — a worthwhile investment, the School Committee and Johnson say.
The School Department acknowledges that having two superintendents can create confusion, and for that reason, McDonough has essentially become the face and voice of the district.
It was McDonough, not Johnson, who delivered a speech on the School Department’s priorities for the upcoming school year at a seminar for new principals.
When controversy erupted after a newly appointed middle school principal plagiarized a Forbes magazine column, and apparently some applications materials, McDonough provided statements to the news media.
And at last month’s School Committee meeting, McDonough sat in the superintendent’s chair alongside committee members, while Johnson looked on from the audience. McDonough used the occasion to publicly thank Johnson for helping him adjust to his new role and promised a smooth transition.
“Dr. Johnson truly has been a nurturing mentor and teacher, which I’m entirely grateful for,” McDonough said in an interview two days later. “I think this is a very tough job, but it is also exciting and rewarding.”
Johnson said she has given little thought about her plans after retiring — beyond moving back to Memphis, where she previously served as superintendent.
“I’m thinking about writing a book,” said Johnson, noting the topic would be “urban education, the opportunities and the challenges.”
Johnson said it has been gratifying to see some of her early initiatives blossom as she prepares to depart.
One such opportunity presented itself when she visited the summer program at Jamaica Pond. Johnson has garnered national attention for expanding summer school, more than doubling enrollment over the last five years to 11,500 students.
Yet even on that day, Johnson attempted to shift attention to McDonough. At the boathouse, as the two watched students test solar-powered boats they had made, a girl asked Johnson if she could pose with them for a picture. But Johnson instead steered her into McDonough’s direction.
“Why don’t you take a picture with the new superintendent?” asked Johnson.
She then stepped to the back of the room and grinned as the children crowded around McDonough.
“This will be good for John,” she said. “Good experience.”