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Superintendent search panel excludes students

They want voice on new schools chief

Boston school officials stress they want to ensure student voices are heard during the search for a new school superintendent. But when Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the School Committee named a 12-member search committee last month, not a single student was appointed.

Instead, they packed the panel with academics, current and former school administrators, teachers, parents, and a business executive.

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The move disappointed the Boston Student Advisory Council, a citywide organization of elected student leaders, which lobbied the mayor and the School Committee for representation and crafted its own criteria for a new superintendent, based on student surveys.

“Honestly, it didn’t make sense to us,” said Marcus Wade, an advisory council member and a junior at Dorchester Academy. “The superintendent makes decisions about students, and no one knows student needs better than students.”

The students are hoping Walsh and the School Committee will change their minds.

But Michael O’Neill, the School Committee chairman, said there are not enough seats on the search panel to accommodate a student appointment. He said he and the mayor initially wanted to limit the panel’s size to nine members, but expanded it to 12 because of high interest among various parties across the city.

“There was a whole range of groups that volunteered to be part of the process, and we were trying to make sure we had a wide range of people who know the district and could hold the district accountable,” O’Neill said.

‘We should be using students more. . . . They have a different point of view.’

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But he added, “You lose the ability to have an effective committee if it gets too big.”

O’Neill said there will be other ways for students to participate. He noted they asked the Student Advisory Council to host a public forum this month on the search and offered the group an opportunity to interview the finalists.

“There are a variety of ways student voices can be heard,” he said. “I believe when we get to the end of the process here we will see student voice is both heard and respected.”

Walsh, in a statement, offered no explanation as to why no student was appointed to the search committee, which will be looking for a permanent replacement for Carol R. Johnson, who retired last summer.

“The search committee is a large, diverse group of individuals, and is only one piece of a very active and community-engaged process,” Walsh said. “We are confident that the voices of all stakeholders, students included, will be heard and incorporated into the selection of a superintendent for Boston public schools.”

Across the state, students are rarely appointed to superintendent search panels. Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, which conducts superintendent searches, could recall only two districts in recent years that included students on their panels.

“It’s truly a local call,” Koocher said.

Lyle Kirtman, chief executive of Future Management Systems, a Beverly-based firm that conducts superintendent searches, said the lack of students on search panels needs to change.

“It’s an old model,” Kirtman said. “We should be using students more. . . . They have a different point of view.”

Even high-profile boards, like school committees, include student representatives. But in Boston’s case, the student representative has no voting power, a situation students are pushing to change.

Barbara Fields, of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and a former Boston school administrator, pointed out that Boston high school students frequently serve on selection panels for headmasters.

“If students were deemed worthy to participate in the selection of a principal or headmaster, it’s not far-fetched for them to be involved in the selection of a superintendent,” Fields said. “The constituency most directly impacted [by a new superintendent] are the students.”

While Boston students say they appreciate the opportunities to host the forum and interview the finalists, they wonder whether the slate might look different if students had a voice on the search committee.

The Student Advisory Council is pushing for a superintendent who will communicate regularly and directly with students, visit schools frequently, and support student participation in decisions at their schools about their education.

The group says it also wants a superintendent who understands the diverse backgrounds of students, will fight for equitable funding, prioritize social and emotional support services, promote alternative education, and create partnerships for after-school programs, jobs, and internships.

“We know what we want,” said Fajir Forbes-Harris, a Student Advisory Council member and a 1oth-grader at Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers. “We are in the classroom every day. We are the ones doing the work. It’s our education.”

O’Neill said the search committee will take the criteria students have developed into consideration as it vets dozens of applicants.

James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.
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