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Boston superintendent facing revolt among high school headmasters

Leaders urge Cassellius, school committee to halt 'deeply flawed' reform plan

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius
Superintendent Brenda CasselliusNic Antaya for The Boston Globe

One year into her tenure leading Boston Public Schools, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius is facing open rebellion from the city’s high school leaders who are publicly attacking one of her signature initiatives, calling it “deeply flawed” and “a top-down exercise in poor planning.”

In a scathing letter delivered to Cassellius and school committee members Thursday, the Boston High School Heads Association called on them to halt the superintendent’s plan that would fundamentally transform the city’s struggling high schools as soon as the fall of 2021, overhauling the curriculum while adding seventh and eighth grades.

The association, which represents the leaders of Boston’s more than 30 high schools, said they were left out of planning for the redesign, resulting in a proposal that is “divorced from any authentic analysis of data, lacks major details ... [and] ignores years of studies about BPS high schools and the complex issues they face.”

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In addition, the school leaders — dismayed after Cassellius removed several high school headmasters during the spring shutdown — said the overhaul is altogether too ambitious to be carried out in the middle of a crippling pandemic.

“The Association is asking the School Committee and the Superintendent to immediately withdraw the current high school redesign proposal ... [and] immediately address issues of leadership and management in the central office,” wrote the headmaster group. “We believe that this proposal, if implemented as currently constructed, would be extremely detrimental to students, families and schools.”

Cassellius, in an interview on Thursday, stressed that the high school reforms still face another year of planning and that she welcomed the feedback.

“I don’t understand why the [headmasters] didn’t just ask for a meeting and work with us on that,” said Cassellius. “If you’re planning, and they bring up these problems, you say. ‘OK, let’s readjust the time frame, or just start with three schools this year.‘

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“But what I’m not going to do is settle for lower standards,” she continued. “I want to have high schools that are excellent and just as good as our exam schools across every neighborhood in this city.”

The high school headmasters’ letter, obtained by the Globe, was one of two troubling salvos Cassellius received from school leaders on Thursday. Separately, the association representing scores of principals at Boston’s kindergarten through eighth grade schools delivered a survey that describes the district’s “successes and challenges” over the past year.

A summary of the survey by the K-8 Principal Association, which had a 90 percent response rate, notes a few high points for the first year under Cassellius’s leadership, including better bonds between principals and high praise for teachers during the shutdown.

But the summary sent to Cassellius, and also obtained by the Globe, paints a darker picture when it comes to issues like district culture, communication, and leadership. The letter contains two and a half pages of anonymous quotes from principals about their concerns, such as:

* “It feels chaotic and toxic to be working in BPS right now.”

* “There is very little trust between school leaders and the central office.”

* “Much of [Dr. Cassellius'] actions feel like they are fueled for publicity’s sake.”

The principals close on a hopeful note, saying they want to work with Cassellius “so that together we can move our district forward.”

Cassellius said that during her 32-year career she’s always been open to criticism.

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“I wish I knew who that was because it’s very important for me to hear and listen to the school principals,” she said. “That’s not my assessment of the work, but I honor the feedback and will lean in to that and make sure we are collaborating with our principals, which we have been doing.”

The principals and headmasters of Boston’s schools are an embattled group, plagued by chronic turnover and frequent criticism for the low performance of students. Thirty-four Boston schools — housing some 17,000 students, most from historically disadvantaged populations — are among the lowest performing 10 percent of schools in Massachusetts, according to a recent state audit.

Education observers say there’s a pressing need for ambitious reforms, especially at the high school level.

“They’ve got more than 30 different high schools, and each one has its own graduation requirements,” said former Massachusetts education secretary Paul Reville. “The superintendent wants to do something about that in the name of equity ... and there’s enormous resistance within the schools. They have varying assumptions about what their students can and can’t do.”

Cassellius’s high school redesign plan would initially target seven of the city’s struggling open-enrollment schools, including Brighton, East Boston, English, and Madison Park.

Under the proposed plan, those schools are expected to implement four major new programs, including vocational education tracks, International Baccalaureate, pre-Advanced Placement courses, and dual enrollment with local colleges and universities. At the same time, the schools are expected to expand from grades 9-12 to include grades 7 and 8.

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The timeline is also ambitious: The five initiatives would be implemented in September 2021, following what is certain to be a school year of historic disruption by the coronavirus.

“Pressing forward with this plan now is absolutely inappropriate and will distract schools and school leaders from the deeply challenging work of reopening and successfully running our schools” during the pandemic, wrote the headmasters.

“The speed at which this is being pushed forward implies a strong desire by district leadership to satisfy external constituencies at the expense of quality, equity and real results,” they wrote.

Cassellius said the pace and scope of change were still to be determined.

“We are merely in the planning process, so I just don’t understand where this is coming from,” she said. “If we have to take a step back because of COVID and the pandemic, in order to take two steps forward, I’m happy to do so.”

When she arrived in Boston, Cassellius became Boston’s fourth superintendent in six academic years. The city, with its deep political fault lines, has proved a minefield for previous superintendents without local roots: Former superintendent Tommy Chang, who was hired on a five-year contract in 2015, left the district just three years into his rocky tenure.

Perhaps with that in mind, Cassellius, who previously served as Minnesota’s education commissioner, made it a point to tour each of the district’s 125 schools. She held scores of community meetings, freely offering her cellphone number to district stakeholders.

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City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George who chairs the Education Committee, praised Cassellius for “hitting the ground running” in her adopted city.

“That’s how she worked to develop her strategic plan,” said Essaibi-George. “But ... this is difficult work and you are not going to please everybody. There are going to be moments of dissatisfaction.”

Discontent among school leaders from kindergarten to high school has been brewing since the fall, when school leaders say Cassellius stopped convening the principals cabinet, a longstanding group that has traditionally served as a means for school leaders to communicate with the central office.

“I didn’t know they had a principals cabinet when I first came,” Cassellius said. “They never requested that I convene it. I certainly would have.”

School leaders also say the superintendent has moved to cut principals out of the decision-making process from the beginning of her tenure, including the high school redesign effort.

In their letter, the headmasters charge that their concerns about the plan were “dismissed repeatedly.” They add that the process has required “superhuman efforts” by school leaders “to meet rushed and incoherent tasks and deadlines that appear to be designed to project progress to external constituencies at the expense of schools themselves.”

Principals say that at the beginning of the school year Cassellius repeatedly snubbed school leaders, speaking openly of replacing a large number of them and creating a climate of uncertainty.

But Cassellius defended her approach.

“Leadership matters at a school and, if a school has been at the bottom 10 percent for many years, that’s the first step you take,” she said.

Their discontent reached a crescendo last this spring, after Cassellius reshuffled the school leader corps, giving little warning before making nearly two dozen changes to school leadership.

Noting that Cassellius removed six high school leaders during the shutdown, the association called the changes “absolutely detrimental to morale, dismissive of the strong work done by those leaders before and during the COVID emergency, and reflect poor practices by the BPS in supporting and evaluating school leaders.”

Another major concern in the letter is that the high school redesign plan may mark the beginning of an era of widespread high school closures, since Cassellius is hoping that at least seven of the city’s big high schools should have more students.

“If these seven schools grow in size, other schools must lose students to offset them, many of which currently outperform the seven schools in the High School Redesign cohort,” the letter concludes.

“I hope to grow enrollment [in city schools]: This is an enrollment strategy,” said Cassellius. “I’m not taking a deficit lens. I want our schools to compete with the suburban schools. I want our schools to be great.”

Meghan Irons of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.