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Principals soften tone on Boston schools superintendent but don’t disavow critiques

Boston’s school leaders softened their tone about Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.
Boston’s school leaders softened their tone about Superintendent Brenda Cassellius.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

Days after delivering a pair of stunning critiques of Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and her leadership to the School Committee, Boston’s school leaders softened their tone this week, pledging to adopt a spirit of “collaboration, trust, and camaraderie” with the city’s schools chief.

In separate letters Tuesday, the Boston High School Heads Association and the Boston K-8 Association did not disavow the substance of the complaints they lodged in separate critiques last week. The high school administrators had issued blistering criticism of Cassellius’s redesign plan; the K-8 Association cited concerns about trust and communications.

But the two groups said they regretted their feedback was leaked to the press, and sounded a conciliatory note.

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“As school leaders we are committed to doing this crucial and necessary work together with Dr. Cassellius and the central office team,‘' the Boston K-8 Association letter said. “We are disheartened knowing that our well-intentioned efforts were manipulated for some other purpose.”

The high school group called the School Committee and the superintendent “key partners” and said it intends to work cooperatively with the district to address concerns.

“To be clear, we are not ‘revolting’ against the superintendent,‘' said the group, formerly known as the Boston Headmasters Association. “Our only goal is to resolve major issues that we as school leaders believe are important and have not yet been resolved despite numerous attempts to do so in other forums.”

Both letters, which were shared by the superintendent’s spokesman, will be submitted to the School Committee, which meets Wednesday.

The superintendent, in an interview, said she spent the weekend talking to the principals, who she said were “up in arms with each other” about the public airing of their views. She said she sought to get a better understanding of their concerns and convey that she is there to support them.

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Cassellius added that the school leaders’ latest letters speak to her capacity to lead the district through difficult moments. She also noted she is still a relative newcomer to Boston and the challenges its schools face.

“They believe in this vision that we’re creating together,‘‘ Cassellius said. “I think that they wanted to give me honest feedback about remote learning. . . and the really serious concerns in central office [that originated] prior to my arrival'' in the spring of 2019.

Cassellius became Boston’s fourth superintendent since Carol Johnson left in 2012. (Two superintendents served on an interim basis.)

The latest letters came days after a Globe story revealed deep displeasure among high school leaders, who characterized the superintendent’s high school redesign plan as a “top-down exercise in poor planning.”

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.

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.

Those schools were expected to implement four major new programs in September 2021, 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.

“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 in the earlier letter.

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The headmasters also wrote that the plan was “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.”

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

The Boston K-8 Association conducted its survey in response to the superintendent’s request that principals give her feedback on successes and challenges in the district. While the survey identified some high points, such as better collaboration among principals, it noted a “toxic” environment and “unclear, contradictory, and reactive” communications from central office.

In their letter this week, the high schools’ leaders said their intent was “solely to highlight our serious concerns” with the high school redesign process and other issues at the high school level, adding that they are “deeply committed to anti-racist work to make our district and city equitable.”

“Our letter was about the work that we all need to do, not a personal attack upon the Superintendent or any other district leaders. We want our Superintendent and her team to be successful and look forward to working with them to resolve these issues for the benefit of everyone,‘' they wrote.

The K-8 association said its members “stand behind our individual statements and understand there is much work to do in creating an anti-racist school district” where all students receive a high-quality education.

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“We also acknowledge that the superintendent has inherited many of the systemic inequities that plague BPS and disproportionately impact our Black and LatinX students and families,‘' the K-8 Association letter said. “Dr. Cassellius has an incredibly arduous job, especially given the global pandemic and historic racism that persists in our country and in BPS.”

Malcolm Gay of the Globe staff contributed to this report.



Meghan E. Irons can be reached at meghan.irons@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @meghanirons.