Can this superintendent be saved?
As she marks her first anniversary as head of Boston Public Schools, Brenda Cassellius is getting a lesson in the local version of “trauma-informed teaching.” This learning strategy is supposed to take trauma into account and help students get past it. But here, it means a superintendent is put through the trauma of being undermined by various interest groups, and then by a mayor who caves into them. The lesson ends with the scuttling of a feather-ruffling proposal in favor of the status quo.
For Cassellius, trauma came in the form of a scathing letter from an association that represents the city’s high school leaders, complaining bitterly about a still-in-the-works reform plan. Mayor Martin J. Walsh then used the very public platform of a radio show to tell Cassellius to meet with the complainers. A summary of unflattering findings of a survey from an association representing principals of Boston’s K-8 schools was also obtained by the Globe.
Even a casual observer of Boston politics knows these are not good omens for job security. However, Walsh did ultimately issue a statement of support for Cassellius. And the unhappy principals and headmasters are now pledging “collaboration, trust, and camaraderie.” Let’s hope they all mean it. From media reports, it’s hard to assess the actual merits of Cassellius’s reform agenda. It’s packaged with the usual aspirational rhetoric about transforming struggling high schools and overhauling the curriculum. But she deserves a chance to finalize it and present the details.
Besides the usual pressure put on an incoming Boston superintendent to improve the schools, Cassellius also faced the coronavirus pandemic during her first year on the job. She was criticized for her handling of the abrupt switch to remote learning, and especially for a lack of transparency when it came to reporting how many students were not logging in. She’s accountable for that, but still, there should be some leeway for a new school leader who is also navigating the uncharted and turbulent waters of COVID-19.
When it comes to the schools, Walsh is still working to deliver the leadership he promised. When he first won election as mayor, in 2013, John McDonough, the longtime chief financial officer, took over as interim superintendent. In 2015, Tommy Chang, who had served as an instructional superintendent in Los Angeles, was chosen to head BPS. He resigned in 2018, one day after a civil rights lawsuit was filed against the district, alleging that immigration information about a student was shared with law enforcement officials.
Chang already had a rocky relationship with Walsh, stemming partly from a proposal to change school start times. When parents rebelled, the mayor abandoned Chang and his plan. After Chang announced his departure, Walsh said the city needed “a long-term education leader with a proven record in management who can gain the confidence of the community on the strategic vision for the district.” He named another interim superintendent, who quickly became controversial, leading to a nation-wide job search.
It ended with the selection of Cassellius, who had a brief tenure as superintendent in Minneapolis before serving eight years as Minnesota’s education commissioner. When she was chosen for the Boston job, Walsh praised her “deep experience improving educational outcomes for students” and called her “a proven leader who knows what’s right for kids and understands the value of community voice.”
If he still believes that, then Walsh should let Cassellius lead.
Buy-in from stakeholders is important, but resistance to change can also derail needed reform. And like it or not, something has to change when 34 Boston schools are among the lowest-performing 10 percent in Massachusetts, according to a recent state audit.
In the best of times, improving those rankings would be difficult. COVID-19 has exacerbated the challenge of providing a quality education to all Boston school students. This is a time for teachers and principals to pull together — and a time for Walsh to back up a superintendent whose hiring was hailed with much mayoral praise.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.