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Read a summary of the survey about the ‘successes and challenges’ in BPS K-8 schools

The following is a summary from the Boston Public Schools K-8 Principal Association about a survey that describes the district’s “successes and challenges” over the past year.

Dear Dr. Cassellius,

We hope that this communication finds you safe and well. At the conclusion of this school year, you requested that principals provide you with a list of successes and challenges to help inform our work and partnership moving forward. In an effort to efficiently and collectively respond to your inquiry, the K8 Principals completed an anonymous feedback survey this June.

The data demonstrates successes and challenges, both pre-and post-pandemic. Our goal in sharing this collective data is to fulfill your request for feedback with honesty and transparency, so that we can work collaboratively to strengthen our school communities and the district as a whole.

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We thank you for the opportunity to provide feedback, and hope that the information provided fulfills your request. We look forward to addressing these challenges in partnership with you. As always, we remain committed to meeting the needs of our students, families and BPS communities.

Sincerely,

The K-8 Principal Association

Boston Public Schools

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Participation:

Following Dr. Cassellius’ request for school leader feedback, the K8 association developed a survey to collect honest, anonymous feedback. The survey was sent to all Elementary and K-8 principals. It was agreed that the survey results would be shared with Dr. Cassellius and participating principals on July 16, 2020. There was a 90% response rate.

Methodology:

The survey collected anonymous, open-ended feedback from K8 principals about current successes and challenges within their role and within the district. Open-ended responses were gathered and organized to identify high-level trends which became overall categories. A count of success-based comments and challenge-based comments within each category are represented in the charts provided. Within each of the identified categories, repeated points and sentiments echoed by multiple school leaders are included as quotes to provide additional context.

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Survey Directions:

School Leaders: The K8 Association is looking to gather anonymous feedback on the school year. We will consolidate the feedback and share general trends along with each comment that is shared. We ask that you be honest and professional as your comments, although anonymous, will likely be shared with district leaders. Do not include any identifying information. Please give pluses and deltas around district culture, workload, district-level systems and structures, engagement across the district, remote learning, communication and anything else about SY 2019-2020.

Key Successes:

Key Successes:

1. Collegial Support Among Principals

2. Support from Specific District Offices

3. Academic Superintendent Support

4. School-Based (Student, Staff, Family) Response to Covid-19

5. Momentum in Addressing Issues of Racism & Equity

A screenshot of the chart highlighting key successes, submitted to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius by the K-8 Principal Association. The chart was part of a summary of a recent survey about the district's successes and challenges.
A screenshot of the chart highlighting key successes, submitted to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius by the K-8 Principal Association. The chart was part of a summary of a recent survey about the district's successes and challenges.Handout

I. Collegial Support Among Principals: (58 Positive Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “Principal collaboration and peer support feels especially strong at this moment, and it would be wise for the district to capitalize on this momentum to create a more collaborative and less inherently competitive culture among principals in the district.”
  • “Principals have built stronger relationships that allow us to collaborate and share best practices.”
  • “Amazing resources created and shared by school leaders.”
  • “The PLC structure supports relationships and deeper content knowledge related to instructional leadership”
  • “My PLC: I was so happy to have a PLC that focused on excellent instruction.”
  • “The PLC structure for PD, led by school leaders, was a huge success. It allowed for true professional development, and thanks to facilitators, became a space where we could be open to learning, admitting mistakes, and be our true selves. It was a huge improvement from the typical all BPS PDs.”

II. Support from Specific District Offices: (47 Positive Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “OIIT has done a tremendous job getting devices out and supporting school leaders to monitor and track needs”
  • “OHC continued to be incredibly helpful, professional and responsive.”
  • “I enjoyed having the support of some of the district staff from the Equity Office [and] Office of Opportunity Gap.”
  • “Being able to open post our jobs is a gift to all school leaders and it would be almost impossible to improve schools if we went back to the way things were.”

III. Academic Superintendent Support: (25 Positive Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “My network superintendent was incredibly supportive and pushed me to be a better leader.”
  • “I have a genuinely strong relationship with my School Superintendent. She communicates openly, honestly, and frequently, gives me strong feedback, and brings a supportive mindset to our work together. I feel that she has a strong understanding of the challenges at my school and has been able to leverage support from across the district to support our work at the school.”
  • “My Assistant Superintendent/ supervisor was very supportive, understood the challenges of the time and role, and helped us to stay focused and navigate the changing directives and communication from Central Office.”
  • “My supervisor worked hard to support the schools in our network and to help us make sense of the requirements and todos that kept changing from the district.”

IV. School-Based Response to COVID-19: (24 Positive Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “Our teachers rocked remote learning, despite all the challenges. Our families were amazed at how much actual teaching was taking place, compared to other districts including the well funded districts such as Newton.”
  • “Amazing teachers who gave their full efforts and innovated, families who were wonderful—communicative, gave praise that felt energizing when things were hard, and seeing students on Zooms, and feeling connected even though we were apart.”
  • “My school based team truly stepped up during remote learning. Teachers wanted to do well by students and worked their tails off to make remote learning worthy.”
  • “We engaged with community partners to support our students with their mental health needs, families with food and housing supports, and our staff with professional learning - specific to a remote learning platform.”

V. Momentum in Addressing Issues of Racism & Equity: (17 Positive Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “Recent affinity spaces have been powerful and important.”
  • “We’ve begun to talk about race in ways that (will hopefully) matter.”
  • “Equity roundtables were a great platform; families really appreciated and enjoyed them.”
  • “More employees at all levels naming white supremacy culture and actively working to dismantle it.”

Key Challenges:

Key Challenges:

1. District Level Operations and Structures

2. District Level Communication

3. District Time and Resource Management

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4. Trust Between School Leaders & District

5. District Culture

A screenshot of the chart highlighting key challenges, submitted to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius by the K-8 Principal Association. The chart was part of a summary of a recent survey about the district's successes and challenges.
A screenshot of the chart highlighting key challenges, submitted to Superintendent Brenda Cassellius by the K-8 Principal Association. The chart was part of a summary of a recent survey about the district's successes and challenges.Handout

I. District Level Operations and Structures: (78 Challenge Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “Systems and structures are not evident.”
  • “Lack of Principal voice in decision making at the District Level.”
  • “Disorganized central office infrastructure led to more messes to clean up than actual support at the school level.”
  • “Far too many decisions being changed last minute which resulted in chaos, confusion and frustration.”
  • “Decisions are being made at a district level without input from the individuals working in schools. There is a lot of talk about bringing in multiple stakeholders, but [that] ultimately does not happen”
  • “There seems to be no clear expectations anymore for any district systems or structures, no clear work flow path, or understanding of what to expect. Timely responses from central office departments are rare and unclear on who takes point, especially in a time of crisis.”
  • “Instead of removing barriers for school leaders as we did for our staff, more and more tasks were piled on in a disorganized way… Central asking for feedback through text messages and random emails does not feel authentic and so far we have heard no responses in regards to any feedback that was in fact given to the leadership team. It does not feel that constructive criticism is wanted or valued.”

II. District Level Communication: (73 Challenge Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “Communication from the central office to school leaders has been unclear, contradictory, and reactive. Vital information that principals need in order to complete important tasks was difficult to track down and other updates changed so rapidly that it was impossible to know which update was the right one moving forward.”
  • “Communication has been a huge challenge throughout the year and especially during remote learning. We often received conflicting information, and spent countless hours completing multiple forms asking for the same information.”
  • “Mismanagement of time, both in centrally-led meetings and in information sharing. Many schools left “in the dark” by the district during remote learning, left to get updated information from the BTU.”
  • “Communication feels chaotic. I know there is a lot going on right now, but when our BTU had communication out more regularly and clearly than we as principals were receiving - it was embarrassing and disrespectful. Not having clear guidelines until the middle of April break was ridiculous. The low bar initially set made it very hard to create a culture of excellence in the virtual world. On that note, trust with our families and communities is eroding. As principals, we are the scapegoat more often than not. A lack of clarity from the district means that parents will default to believing that we, at the school level, are the issue.”
  • “The messages and directions from the Central Office consistently felt chaotic, contradictory, not thought out, and uninterested in ideas, feedback, or support to make them better--all while there was a “catch people being bad” tone. The time with the superintendent felt rushed (there was always a meeting that was scheduled at the same time) and superficial … It did not feel like a partnership with school leaders. There felt like a lack of respect, consideration or value for the ways in which we understood the work, cared for our communities, and worked to be effective before, during, and after the pandemic. All of this came while rumors floated about nefarious doings with principal contracts, evaluations, and who was next to be blindsided when they were removed by the superintendent…”

III. District Time and Resource Management: (32 Challenge Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “Deadlines within 48 hours, excessive trackers to be completed, no guidance on summer school, no guidance around remote learning - a “figure it out attitude.” Lack of support from the central office. No work life balance, in Zoom meetings until 8pm.”
  • “Workload feels at times unmanageable which impacts leader morale and retention. I fear we will continue to lose strong and experienced leaders, and they are so needed in schools, and to support district level work, especially when we are all working around the clock to respond to teacher and student needs.”
  • “I signed up for this job knowing that the workload is intense, but especially during remote learning it feels like it truly requires 24/7 commitment - and even then, I’m feeling like it’s not enough. Decisions about district policies, which principals are solely responsible for implementing (and defending) at the school level, seem to be made without any consultation of principals and communicated with an incredibly short implementation timeline. This has been especially evident during remote learning. One example during remote learning was the BPS/BTU MOU and Phase II remote learning guidelines, where we were essentially given one week with our staff to create a plan for Phase II, in my case deal with pushback on the written MOU expectations from BTU, attempt to get community input on the Phase II plan, build buy-in on the plan, and roll out the plan to kids and families. Another example is the summer school plan. I, along with the other principals in my region, have been asking about the plan for summer school for months - we all knew this challenge was coming, and we knew the plan would need to account for many more students than any normal year. Instead of planning ahead together with principal voice, we were told that planning was happening behind the scenes and we’d have more information soon - and then, 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, and we’d have to figure it out and submit an application for funding two business days later. While these two issues rise to the top of mind in terms of degree of challenge, they are not isolated incidents - they are representative of a culture that too often does not value the voices of principals leading the work of teaching and learning on the ground in schools. I signed up for the daily challenges of the principalship, and there’s no doubt that it’s hard work - but having to lead through these types perfectly avoidable communication and planning mishaps, the resulting pushback at the school level, the feelings of frustration and inadequacy, is what has led me to feel truly beat down at the end of this year.”
  • “I need clarification on what my primary role is as a principal. We obviously have standards to adhere to but [Dr. Cassellius] needs to explicitly state what she envisions our roles should be. Based on this vision, we need the district to ensure that we are supported to meet this vision/expectation.”

IV. District Culture (23 Challenge Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “It feels chaotic and toxic to be working in BPS right now.”
  • “The position of principal feels very disrespected in BPS … We are never asked our opinion but are expected to stand in front of whatever decision is made irregardless of whether it makes sense at a school. It feels like schools are not the focus in decision making or how it impacts communities.”
  • “I’m not sure how long I will stay as my opinion isn’t respected or wanted but my reputation needs to stand in front of whatever decisions are made.”
  • “There is a toxic and misguided focus on public relations and numbers for the sake of having a talking point for the Boston Globe or our news media, rather than understanding the data and providing highlights of our work that speak to the complexities that exist within our system.”

V. Trust Between School Leaders & District: (21 Challenge Statements)

The quotes below reflect repeated sentiments shared by multiple leaders:

  • “I am afraid to speak up because I fear retaliation. As I mentioned before, much of [Dr. Cassellius'] actions feel like they are fueled for publicity’s sake.”
  • “There is very little trust between school leaders and the central office. While I appreciate that [Dr. Cassellius] is willing to share her phone number, that is not a way to build trust. Leaders do not feel comfortable to call her. There needs to be multiple ways that leader feedback can be given through surveys, focus groups, leader participation on ALL committees, [and] transparency in decision making. Once there is trust people will call on the phone.”
  • “There needs to be a system or structure for feedback especially in a culture where it seems that the superintendent gets defensive when approached with feedback or disagreements. Truly wanting to receive feedback means being open to it, actively listening to it, and collecting it (whether acting on it or not).”

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This data captures the many successes and challenges K8 principals experience within Boston Public Schools. We recognize that this is one vehicle for feedback and hope a system for collecting regular feedback can be expanded. It is our belief that the path forward is stronger if we work in partnership. We welcome the opportunity to work with you to amplify these successes and develop solutions to these challenges, so that together we can move our district forward.

Respectfully,

The K8 Principal Association

Note: Appendix with complete responses shared with Dr. Cassellius 7/16/20