Carol Johnson and Jackie Jenkins-Scott are two women at the top of education, but they come from two very different perspectives. Johnson, 64, is the Boston superintendent of schools overseeing more than 56,000 students and 125 public schools. Jenkins-Scott, 62, is the president of Wheelock College, a private college with 856 undergraduates.
We asked Jenkins-Scott to lead a conversation with Johnson, who arrived in Boston in 2007 after serving as superintendent in Memphis and Minneapolis and whose contract was extended earlier this year. Here is an edited interview.
Jenkins-Scott: We are going to have you for another five years.
Johnson: Well, we’ve got more important work to do. We’ve made progress in graduation rates, the number of students dropping out. We feel really good about that progress, but there’s a tremendous amount of work to be done to close the access to achievement gaps.
Jenkins-Scott: Even with the focus and commitment to this, I can tell you, higher ed faculties still feel students are not [prepared for college]. And it’s not just Boston students. They feel students are not prepared to be in a rigorous, challenging, academic environment, especially given all the things we talked about in terms of 21st-century skills. What kind of things can we do to continue to work on this so that our students can be successful?
Johnson: Part of it is the communication that exists in the higher ed community and the K-12 community. We’ve offered a lot more of Advanced Placement courses because we know they’re more rigorous in terms of preparing students. We’re trying to make students take more rigorous courses, and able to take Algebra I at the eighth-grade level. We do have kids who are entering college where they are the first in their family to go to college. The wraparound support that colleges can offer makes a huge difference. It’s not enough to just let kids enter.
Jenkins-Scott: We bring a lot of Boston schoolchildren to our campus, whether high school or middle school. What I tell them is that it is so important to actually spend time on college campuses to see themselves there, that they belong there, because self-esteem is another huge factor in whether they are going to be successful, so we encourage schools to bring their students to our campuses to spend a day. We actually have had a couple of courses taught by professors to high school students. I think that type of partnership and collaboration with you and the schools will make a huge difference, too, when we think about success rate.
Johnson: You’re partnering with us as well with one of our elementary schools in Mattapan. I was over there right at the beginning of the school year. It was a big service day. Repainting, cleaning any debris on the campus. Even though it was raining, it really was a great event. Having those partnerships really strengthens what we do every day at school.
Jenkins-Scott: These types of collaborations and partnerships can really happen in a place like Boston. The environment is very conducive to that because the people do know each other. We’re not so huge that it’s hard to meet people and make things happen that benefit our children and our students.
Johnson: I often say exactly what you just said. We’re not New York with a million students. We’re not L.A. with 750,000 students, and we’re not Chicago with half a million. We have about 57,000 students with very diverse backgrounds. But it is manageable. We can work with community organizations. We can work with higher ed institutions. We can work with neighbors to try to impact schools
Jenkins-Scott: Everyone talks about how committed you are to being out in the community, meeting students and families. You go to all the events. Do you get any rest?
Johnson: There’s nothing more important than getting to know the students, getting to know the neighborhoods they’re in, the families, and all of the needs they have.
Jenkins-Scott: This whole concept of neighborhood schools seems to be coming back. I know it’s a little controversial in Boston. How are parents and families receiving this resurgence of the concept?
Johnson: Boston is a city with a long history of struggle with integration from the mid-1970s on. Parents are eager for their children to get a good education. That’s first and foremost. They want them to be in safe places where they can get individual attention. We’ve been making lots of changes in communities throughout the city. We try to turn around our lowest performing schools because we can’t expect parents to choose a school if it isn’t working well for them. We have been very excited that our most recent performance data shows that students in our turnaround schools are really showing progress.
The other thing is we’re trying to expand excellence. We’re trying to make sure there are more opportunities for students, whether by slightly increasing the enrollment or moving the school, so more students can have access to these opportunities.
Some people say that they want schools close to home, and I hear probably as many people say that they want choice. I think it’s the most important decision a parent can make, and I try to encourage them to make an active choice. Go visit our schools. Ask our teachers questions. We have a big showcase in the fall in partnership with the charter schools. We want the parents to be well-educated enough to know which school will fit their child’s needs.
Jenkins-Scott: That’s very forward-thinking because there is a school of thought that says if you’re celebrating charter schools, you’re diminishing public schools. I’m glad to hear you take the position that really if there’s excellence across the board, we want all students to have access to an excellent education wherever they choose to go.
Johnson: The charter school really started because people thought if they did something innovative and different, we could learn some lessons about how to close achievement gaps, how to do a better job with students in terms of reading and writing.
Jenkins-Scott: Well, the jury’s still out on that.
Johnson: There are things we can certainly improve in charter schools, such as how to use time to maximize instruction, how to be more flexible, those are things we would like to see partly in our teachers’ contract. Also, I think there are things they can learn from us. We are doing a lot more with students who are learning English for the first time, children with significant learning challenges, and I think our schools are doing a great job educating a broad array of students.
Jenkins-Scott: And hopefully, parents will see the importance and value of that kind of diversity for their child’s education.
Johnson: The piece that didn’t exist in 1974, that we’re working to achieve today, is the distribution of resources based on need. We still have to work on that. We put in a formula to try to equalize funding based on the needs of students.
I actually attended segregated schools until I went to college. I will say this: We knew that there were differences in the allocation of the resources because we had older books, older maps. We did have adults who had extraordinary expectations for us, and you couldn’t use any excuse. Every day you were expected to be in school on time doing your best work.
Jenkins-Scott: They believed in you that you could do this.
Johnson: We all have to re-create that in our communities. The adults have to own this entire enterprise of education. Every adult has to see it as part of his or her job to really be there for children, coaching, scouting. Sometimes single moms don’t have the resources or time to provide. I do think it has to be a network of support combined with equal resources in order for us to see the progress that is necessary.
Jenkins-Scott: Carol, you’ve been superintendent of three major cities. I know in Minneapolis and Boston, they’re not predominantly minority, and well, Boston’s changing. What is it like being an African-American superintendent in these large school systems that are predominantly not of color?
Johnson: Actually, the city is really different than the school community. So in the city of Boston at least 80 percent of our students are black or Latino. And about 87 percent of our population are black, Latino, or Asian. Only about 13 percent of our students are white.
As a woman of color, I have had experiences that probably help me to be extremely sensitive to valuing that diversity. We don’t always have equal opportunities or equal access for students who are learning English or immigrants to this country or black students who have lived here all their lives but haven’t had an equal opportunity to learn. I have seen so many students who do well in spite of their incomes, their race, their culture, so I know that those don’t have to be barriers.
I think I bring that level of expectation and hope to those students that you can achieve. It’s a matter of effort and hard work. It’s a matter of us giving you that opportunity.
Jenkins-Scott: We have two new college presidents of color this year. I think it’s a wonderful opportunity because we represent a great role model for students.
Johnson: I’m very excited about this next generation of leaders I see. I do think what we bring is not just a connection to young people who are from diverse backgrounds. But I also think for white students who have very limited contact with people of color who may have had stereotypes or notions of what black people are like, we can represent a more informed notion to see the commonality of the human experience.