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The Boston Globe

Metro

YVONNE ABRAHAM

A leadership loss for Boston’s schools

To the Boston public schools’ long list of woes, add this one: Andrew Bott is leaving.

Bott is the principal of Orchard Gardens K-8, the Roxbury school that has become the shining, nationally recognized poster child for successful turnaround efforts. A few years ago, the school defined failure and faced a state takeover. Bott, equipped with a strong vision, federal funds, and autonomy to hire teachers, brought about staggering improvements in student performance.

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And now he is leaving, not just Orchard Gardens, but the entire Boston system. Come September, he’ll lead a school in Brookline.

It’s a seismic event and, for fans like me, a very troubling one.

“Andrew Bott represents the best of what BPS can do when they combine flexible policies that let key decisions get made at school level with the right leadership, so it’s obviously a loss that he’s leaving,” says Chris Gabrieli, chairman of the National Center on Time and Learning.

Why would Bott want to go? Depends whom you ask. Interim Superintendent John McDonough says the decision was personal: Bott has two small children, and being a principal in Boston leaves little time for family.

Several people close to Bott say family concerns are only part of the story. They say being a great principal in Boston is way harder than it should be and that the BPS administration on Court Street is to blame. (Bott himself did not respond to several calls and messages Wednesday.)

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Too much of what good principals try to accomplish is still a battle in Boston. From shaping their own curricula to making sure a student can get on the right bus to school, it’s all way harder than it should be. There have been some improvements, sure, but principals still spend way too much time hacking through the bureaucratic thicket.

Then there’s the money problem. Federal funds are poured into the worst schools, but not the slightly-better-than-worst ones, creating an us-vs.-them climate that wears principals down. The federal spigot shuts down when a low-performing school turns around, forcing principals to scramble to close the gap and safeguard the gains. Then there is this: Budget cuts loom for all district schools, which will turn up the heat on everyone.

It is exhausting and distracting, and it can’t help but make great educators like Bott wonder if there isn’t an easier way.

So, help me here, Superintendent McDonough, why should the system make an already incredibly hard job harder?

McDonough, with his trademark calm candor, concedes the problem is a big one.

“I think we can do more” to retain great principals, he said Wednesday. “It’s a tough, tough job that requires full focus all of the time, and that creates problems. . . . We can do better.”

He says he welcomes pushback from school leaders who chafe at restrictions on their freedom. In his months in the top job, he has tried to put power in more principals’ hands: opening up the hiring process to give all leaders more choice in teacher picks; proposing thinner ranks at Court Street; trying to free up money (and simplify transportation) by allowing more students to ride the T to school. But he says there will always be some tension between the autonomy great principals need, and the accountability the state demands.

McDonough seems committed to trying to keep principals like Bott, for whose work he is “extraordinarily grateful.” But it doesn’t help that the district is in flux. A new superintendent could sweep aside McDonough’s initiatives or take years getting up to speed on them.

In an ideal world, Bott’s departure wouldn’t be that big a deal. The city would have scores of energetic, imaginative principals just like him, ready to lead schools to excellence. Sadly, that happy day just got one big step farther away. Boston can’t afford to lose even one Andrew Bott.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.

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