It was not where Brenda Cassellius wanted to be, a year into her tenure as Boston’s schools chief. But earlier this month, she spent two broiling summer days talking to principals, under pressure from the mayor to mend broken relationships and rebuild trust.
Cassellius had been an energetic presence as she led Boston schools through the pandemic and the shutdown of city schools, but a pair of stunning rebukes from the district’s principals leaked to the Globe offered a harsh critique of her leadership, portraying her administration as chaotic and her plans poorly conceived and communicated.
Her outreach seemed to help right a badly listing administration, at least temporarily. But as she enters her second year, she faces enormous hurdles made infinitely more complicated by the coronavirus and the open questioning of her approach. In less than 50 days, she must safely reopen the schools; in the longer term, she has to address racial achievement gaps, low-performing schools, and declining enrollment.
“I didn’t come to Boston because I thought it would be easy,” she told the School Committee last week. “I don’t shy away from tough conversations, because I believe in the work. . . . I believe in healthy conflict. That’s what makes us stronger.”
But in recent months, onetime allies have become her critics. Edith Bazile, a former Boston educator and a past president of the Black Educators’ Alliance of Massachusetts, was once a vocal supporter of Cassellius, but now says the superintendent hasn’t enlisted the community to design an effective plan for improving the troubled district.
“Cassellius lacks the type of collaborative leadership that is necessary for Boston,” said Bazile.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh said he remains supportive of his superintendent. “I think Brenda is going to come out of this stronger than she went into [the job].” the mayor said. “I want her to lead this district forward.”
In many respects, he doesn’t have a choice. Launching a superintendent search in the midst of a global pandemic would inject intolerable chaos at a time when the stakes couldn’t be higher for students — and it would be politically treacherous for Walsh, who has already seen one superintendent depart early.
Other observers are also reluctant to render judgment just yet, particularly given the extraordinary circumstances of Cassellius’ first year: a scramble to online learning, racial strife that gripped the country, and an economy in collapse.
“We need continuity,” said Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts education secretary, noting that Boston, like many urban districts, has had a revolving door of superintendents in recent years. “We need strength, we need leadership, we need change. And we’ve got to give Brenda Cassellius a chance to prove whether she can be that change agent in Boston.”
* * *
When she arrived last year to lead a district of more than 53,000 students, Cassellius made it clear she intended to stay. She moved to Roxbury, two blocks from School Department headquarters in Nubian Square. She embarked on a tour of the city’s 125 schools and attended more than 100 community meetings in her first few months on the job.
Cassellius, who grew up in a Minneapolis housing project and, as a child, sold flowers with her family on the street corner, had built a 32-year career in public education, most recently serving as Minnesota’s education commissioner. Hailed as a “uniter” by Boston School Committee chairperson Michael Loconto, Cassellius, now 52, vowed to boost the city’s most troubled schools, improve academic rigor, and create more opportunities for Black and Latino students to succeed.
She said she wanted Boston to be a national model for closing achievement gaps between students of different backgrounds.
“I was brought here to do a hard job, and I hope that the community will want to come along and do that hard job with me,” she said recently. “We should all want that for our children. If it’s hard work for us, it’s hard work for us, but our children deserve it.”
Carol Johnson, who served six years as a Boston superintendent and is a mentor to Cassellius, said Boston expects it schools chiefs to learn about all of the city’s neighborhoods and cultures.
“Boston is a city that is used to having high levels of involvement, diverse voices and participation,” she said. “You have to put a high value on inclusivity and participation.”
Cassellius’ early appearances at church services, basketball and hockey games, and community meetings were welcomed by many Bostonians, who saw her as an approachable schools chief willing to take the time to see things from their level.
“She came to my school and chatted with my staff,” said Jennifer Marks, principal of the Charles Taylor School in Mattapan, who added that her first handwritten note, sent by mail, from a superintendent came from Cassellius.
Some school leaders, however, found the visits too brief for her to gain an understanding of the school and their conversations with her disappointingly superficial.
Some observers, including Reville, said Cassellius made school visits and community tours too high a priority early on, at the expense of focusing on building a leadership team.
Signs of trouble surfaced early on, including some familiar bugaboos: Tardy school buses in September angered parents forced to use ride-hailing services for their children, prompting Cassellius to hire an outside consultant to manage the problem.
Members of her leadership team also began to depart. Cassellius oversaw the first of many staff re-organizations, shifting job titles and responsibilities as complaints began to surface that she was an erratic, go-it-alone leader, loath to delegate responsibility and prone to abrupt changes in direction.
In December, Cassellius unveiled a five-year strategic plan, which mentioned as a priority a redesign of the system’s high schools. She successfully lobbied the city for an extra $100 million to advance reforms.
The high school redesign plan, which was updated in May, would target struggling open-enrollment high schools, including Brighton, East Boston, English, and Madison Park. Those schools would be 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. The schools would also be expected to expand from grades 9-12 to include grades 7 and 8 — all by the fall of 2021. The high school overhaul quickly collected dissenters, who complained Cassellius had provided no strategy for how to execute it. Cassellius said the pace and scope of change were still to be determined.
* * *
The need for change in the city’s high schools was highlighted in a blistering state audit released just as the pandemic was hitting in mid-March, days before schools closed. Reflecting conditions Cassellius had inherited, it found that 34 city schools were among the lowest performing 10 percent of schools in Massachusetts and that the district had no “clear, coherent, district-wide strategy for supporting low-performing schools.”
It also cited a longtime concern: wide variation in graduation requirements and access to advanced coursework among the district’s high schools.
“There are 33 different graduation requirements across the district’s high schools,” noted the audit’s authors. “Without district-wide high-school graduation requirements, the district is not consistently supporting all students to become college and career ready and prepared for civic engagement.”
Cassellius’ sweeping high school reorganization, a concept that had been discussed in some form for years, was meant to address those inconsistencies, long considered a barrier for Black and Latino students.
But high school leaders, who for decades have enjoyed enormous leeway when it comes to curriculum, have met the reform plan with fierce resistance, saying they were “sidelined” during its development. In a stinging letter this month, the Boston High School Heads Association said Cassellius’ proposal 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.” The letter also raised deeper concerns about Cassellius’ leadership during the process, calling the plan “a top-down exercise in poor planning.”
A second letter, which summarized a survey administered by the K-8 Principal Association, reinforced the sense that concerns about Cassellius went beyond the typical turf issues: “I am afraid to speak up because I fear retaliation,” said one school leader quoted in the letter. Others called the district’s climate “toxic.”
The pandemic has added pressure to the relationship between the superintendent and her school-based leaders, who in normal times can retreat to their buildings, making sure to be responsive to their school community while sidestepping some of the growing pains that accompany any new superintendent. The coronavirus has forced school leaders to become much more dependent on the central office to support everything from remote learning to reopening plans in the fall.
But interviews with 11 current and former central administration staffers who have worked directly with Cassellius describe frustrations — many similar to those voiced by school leaders — which speak to deeper concerns about her leadership style. In total, the Globe spoke with more than three dozen current and former principals, central administration employees, and longtime BPS observers.
“It’s chaos,” said one current central administration staffer, who declined to be identified for fear of professional retribution. “It’s people in two different departments working on the exact same thing and not knowing, people in two different departments thinking the other one’s doing something and no one is. I mean, it’s mayhem.”
The recent erosion of her relationship with key community advocates has only added to Cassellius’ troubles. At an equity roundtable last month, Bazile, the former Boston educator, publicly confronted her about her decision to terminate 10 administrators in charge of various subjects, such as math, English and science. Bazile had been collaborating with Cassellius’ administration on bolstering those staff members, including one with whom she had a close professional relationship.
Bazile said Cassellius “failed to be transparent in her plans for the district.”
And in early July, members of the Opportunity and Achievement Gaps Task Force were incredulous when the superintendent pressed forward with a new exam school test despite their vote to suspend the test this year, fearing it would create further inequities at a time when Black and Latino communities have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
“The biggest thing is trust,” said the Rev. Willie Bodrick, a task force member who called Cassellius’ handling of the decision “tone deaf” and deeply disappointing.
Cassellius said it was not her place to speak at a task force meeting about a matter she was hired by the School Committee to accomplish, and afterwards she’d reached out to the task force to explain. But she said it “hurts to my core” to hear that kind of criticism. The committee’s members finally spoke up publicly for their superintendent at Wednesday’s meeting.
“My integrity means everything to me,‘' said Cassellius.
* * *
Cassellius and her team muscled through the spring lockdown. The statistics speak to the enormity of the task: 32,000 Chromebooks delivered, 1.1 million meals served, 14,000 connections made with more than 3,600 students for behavioral health counseling.
“She tried really hard to get as many Chromebooks out. Her response to the immediate needs was good,‘' said Lauren Margharita, a member of the Citywide Parent Council. “It’s one of the better things that she did.”
Cassellius also went out of her way to show she cared. Leslie Gant, principal at the Joseph P. Tynan School in South Boston, said the superintendent personally helped Gant assist one of her student’s families who had been living out of their car.
“She means what she says,‘' said Gant, who has worked for the district for nearly three decades. “For people, especially those of us who’ve been around for a really long time, she is the real McCoy.”
But many district staff said Cassellius’ poor communication and hands-on decision-making complicated the enormous tasks they faced. Instead of deputizing her team, they said, Cassellius often places herself at the center of decisions large and small and is prone to changing her mind. The result: Decisions are made (or reversed) at the last minute, forcing everyone to scramble while compromising execution.
In one instance, school leaders say the district proposed a remote grading policy that was woefully vague. In another, school leaders say the district waited until nearly the end of the school year to let them know whether their schools could host summer school.
“With two weeks to go in the school year, we were told that we’d have to design and run our own programs if we wanted our students to have summer learning opportunities,” said one principal quoted into the K-8 letter. “We’d have to figure it out and submit an application for funding two business days later.”
Cassellius acknowledged the district fumbled on an early version of the grading policy and when it tried to communicate with schools about summer school.
“I don’t have a response for it other than it’s true,” she said, adding the stresses of the spring semester were immense. “We are in a pandemic. We are reinventing education. It is coming fast and furious.”
Also troubling, school-based leaders say, were the weekly Zoom calls they had with Cassellius, where several said the superintendent would frequently stray from the agenda, on occasion breaking down in tears while complaining about the pressures of leading the district.
“What I found problematic about these situations is that it just appeared she was in over her head,” said one school leader. “It appeared that she did not know how to organize the organization to do the things that it needed to do.”
And the superintendent acknowledged the crushing burden she’s felt in recent months. She recalled a Zoom meeting this spring, soon after the district discovered thousands of students were not logging in to remote learning. She became emotional, tearing up as she spoke.
“As a leader, you try to present strength and confidence, but there’s a time when I’m also feeling human,” she said. “It was a very difficult and challenging moment, where I wanted to rally the team to say every child matters. We need to hold ourselves accountable.”
* * *
Looking ahead to what promises to be a year of historic difficulty, Cassellius has a steep hill to climb to restore public faith in her stewardship. NAACP president Tanisha Sullivan, a supporter, said she still needs to assemble “the right leadership team” to help her focus and execute her vision. Cassellius also has to close the communications gap between her office and school leaders and address pockets of resistance in the community.
With reopening in sight, she has to address massive transportation hurdles in getting students to and from school safely. And major disagreements remain between the district and the Boston Teachers Union. Union leaders say they had no input in creating the district’s newly released reopening draft plan and that it’s not realistic about what’s required to safely open schools in early September.
Still, Cassellius appears resolute. She says she’s focused on getting kids back to school safely, seeking public input on school reopening. And the mayor, who could be a powerful ally for Cassellius in the months to come, is standing by her.
In any case, said Samuel R. Tyler, a former president of the watchdog group Boston Municipal Research Bureau, Walsh needs her to succeed: The schools urgently need improvement, and at this point in his tenure, he can ill afford to choose another schools chief.
“It’s in his best interest to make this work,” Tyler said.