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BPS Superintendent Cassellius says she won’t back down on push for reform

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius
Superintendent Brenda CasselliusNic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Brenda Cassellius insists that she does not view the attack on her leadership by a group of her high school principals as an attempt to take her down.

But she isn’t sure what they hoped to accomplish with a broadside late last week that accused her of poor communication and of rushing to implement sweeping changes to the city’s high schools.

“I don’t think they’re trying to push me out,” Cassellius, the Boston schools superintendent, told me in an interview this week. “I really don’t know what’s behind it, because they all have my phone number, and a lot of them use it.

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“I’ve heard that they have done this to other superintendents before, especially other superintendents of color. That has come to my attention.”

Welcome to Boston, Superintendent.

Last week, Cassellius was the recipient of two letters from her principals taking issue with her long-range plans. The more stinging of the two, by far, was from high school principals, who take issue with her plan to overhaul their schools, in part by adding seventh and eighth grades to the mix.

It’s an idea that’s been under consideration for years, yet the principals claimed to have been blindsided. They also took issue with Cassellius’s decision to remove some school leaders whose schools have been underperforming for years.

Cassellius freely admits that she could have done more to build consensus among the troops. She spent much of the first half of the school term visiting schools — she’s been to all of them — and pushing, successfully, for $100 million for curriculum improvements, student mental health services and activities.

Spending more time with principals, she says, was a project for the second half of the year. That plan was upended — like plans the world over — by the pandemic.

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Both groups that wrote letters criticizing Cassellius have since become publicly conciliatory. But their main thrust — that the new superintendent is a problem — wasn’t so easily walked back.

In one sense, this may be a tempest in a teapot — the principals can’t fire their boss, and Mayor Marty Walsh has been supportive.

But in another sense, it strikes at something that runs deep in Boston — the sense that outsiders who don’t “get it,” who don’t understand the rules of the game, will probably fail.

Cassellius is right that, historically, superintendents of color — Carol Johnson, Tommy Chang, and now her — have run into the greatest interference. John McDonough and Mike Contompasis, two other past superintendents who happen to be white, didn’t wake up to find themselves trashed in open letters with no actual signatories.

Cassellius makes no bones about thinking that the city’s non-exam high schools aren’t very good. And that her push for greater equity and accountability is making people in the system nervous.

“We need to stay focused on the work in front of us. And we have to choose whether we want to be part of it or not be part of it. Because it will be hard, it will be messy, we will fail and we have to get back up again. But we will be stronger if we’re a team.”

Cassellius signaled that she is open to slowing down on the plan to revamp high schools. .

But she insisted that she does not plan to ease up on pushing for changes in the district. She has five-year contract and a five-year strategic plan, and she deserves to be judged on concrete failures and successes, not hurt feelings.

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Because we’ve seen this movie before. A new school superintendent runs afoul of some unstated code and gets driven out, and we start over.

How well has that worked the past decade?

Cassellius said her focus is on students, not adults. “I want them to have a great opportunity, like suburban (students) do,” she said. “Those are things we should want for all of our kids, not just some of our kids.”


Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at adrian.walker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.