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EDITORIAL

Boston’s high schools need improvement. Can Brenda Cassellius get it done?

It's tragic that Brenda Cassellius is facing unrest among principals only a year into her tenure. For the sake of thousands of underserved Boston students, the district's leaders need to settle on a clear plan — and soon.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda CasselliusPat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

Change is excruciating. Especially in public education. Especially in Boston. Especially in a pandemic-plagued world. New school superintendent Brenda Cassellius is experiencing that firsthand, as open dissent has broken out among school principals worried about her still-preliminary plans to overhaul the city’s troubled high schools, where, under previous superintendents, graduation rates plunged and the gap between white and Black students widened.

The best way for Cassellius to address the principals’ worries, and those that other former and current district staff have expressed to the Globe, would be to lay out her ideas more explicitly, because the district’s pattern of vagueness has contributed to the unease among school leaders, parents, and teachers. In doing so, she deserves to have the unequivocal support of Mayor Walsh. His school committee appointees hired Cassellius last year, and he owes his superintendent the political backing to tackle the system’s disparities.

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The controversy spilled into public view in a recent Globe story that described profound unrest among high school principals over the superintendent’s plan to revamp high schools, with school leaders calling it “a top-down exercise in poor planning from the start,” “divorced from any authentic analysis of data,” and lacking major details.

Additionally, a survey of heads of K-8 schools revealed sharp criticism of Cassellius’s one-year tenure, including troubling statements such as: “I am afraid to speak up because I fear retaliation . . . much of [Dr. Cassellius’s] actions feel like they are fueled for publicity’s sake”; “It feels chaotic and toxic to be working in BPS right now”; and “Far too many decisions being changed last minute which resulted in chaos, confusion, and frustration.”

In an interview, Cassellius said she is going to get the principals more involved and that she heard loud and clear the feedback about the pace of the change when it comes to her high school redesign plan. “I’m happy to look at the pace and make some adjustments,” she said. “But what I’m not going to do is lower expectations for our kids.”

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Indeed, there is no question that the city needs dramatic intervention in most of the city’s 30 high schools. More than half of high school students attend so-called open-enrollment high schools, which are plagued by “persistently low levels of student achievement and send significantly lower proportions of students on to successful post-secondary education experiences,” according to a 2018 report commissioned to look into how BPS was serving kids who were offtrack to graduate from high school. Chronic absenteeism is staggering in those high schools, and there isn’t a uniform set of high school graduation requirements across the district — in fact, there are 33 different sets of criteria. Cassellius is right to view those shortcomings as an urgent problem in need of urgent solutions.

The superintendent surely has the qualifications on paper. She’s previously been both a superintendent and state commissioner pushing for reform. And Walsh brought her to Boston for the explicit purpose not of making friends but of changing the schools. In an interview, the mayor urged patience. “I think everyone is expecting Brenda Cassellius to be a miracle worker,” he said. But turning the district around “is going to take a multiyear approach with major investment and a lot of collaboration.”

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That’s fair enough. But Cassellius’s initiatives, while setting the right aspirational tone and some of the right goals, are still missing significant details.

Among other policies, they include the adoption of MassCore — the rigorous, state-recommended program of study for high school students — which is long overdue in Boston and should be embraced by principals. It also includes the implementation of the International Baccalaureate, a high-quality program that has been linked to college success. Additionally, the redesign includes implementing the previously approved policy of bringing seventh- and eighth-graders into high schools.

Initially, the district would implement the plan at seven high schools. But Cassellius risks setting these high schools up for failure if the initiative is not rolled out carefully. After all, implementation is policy at BPS. “[P]oorly implemented IB programs may be worse than no IB at all,” as an education expert put it.

As an example, consider Brighton High, one of the most troubled, underperforming schools in the city. It is part of the seven included in Cassellius’s redesign initiative. Nearly half of its students are English-language learners, a much higher percentage than the state- and district-wide averages. To launch an IB program at Brighton represents a level of complexity that cannot be glossed over. “How many years is it going to take? What are the resources? You can’t get from where you are to IB at Brighton High without some serious scaffolding, and so far it’s all been very vague,” as a former school official put it.

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Cassellius said her redesign proposal is still “in the middle of planning, and we have another year of planning,” so it’s not final yet.

Meanwhile, the transfer of younger students into high schools will leave empty seats in their old schools. Cassellius says that enrollment growth will fill those seats. It’s nice to think that will be the case, but so improbable — enrollment in the district is declining, not increasing — that it’s understandable that principals worry the district isn’t being straight with them. The fact is, the district already has overcapacity, and schools need to close. Cassellius should be explaining how the district would handle any closures that could result from her initiative.

All that said, Cassellius is right to put underperforming high schools at the top of her agenda. She should listen to the objections of the principals and staff and answer legitimate questions about how her plans would work in practice. But Cassellius, and the mayor who selected her, should not back down from such a vital job.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.