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It was one of those moments that should have galvanized a city. A scathing state review in March 2020 detailed chronic leadership turmoil within the Boston school system, a special education department in “systemic disarray,” and dozens of schools struggling to provide adequate reading and math instruction while making do without such basic necessities as light bulbs, library books, and potable water in drinking fountains.

The review called for sweeping mandates that were supposed to lift up the system. But within hours of its release, city and school officials announced the closing of schools because of the pandemic and over the next 18 months, more problems mounted.

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Many students struggled to learn at home, racial tensions flared over exam school changes, two School Committee chairs resigned over racially charged remarks, the teachers union voted no confidence in Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, principals revolted against her agenda, and this summer Cassellius allowed her superintendent’s license to expire one month after the School Committee extended her contract.

Now, with a new year begun and old issues like late buses still making headlines, questions are growing about whether the school system has the capacity to turn around or whether it will be stubbornly stuck in a chronic state of crisis. The stakes are high for Boston and its more than 51,000 students: Failure to improve could result in state receivership and further erode the faith of families. Many fear for their children’s future; some are fleeing the school system; others are fighting to gain control of the mayoral-appointed School Committee by replacing it with one elected by voters.

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The confluence of events and emotions reflect a frustrating reality for too many parents, students, and teachers in the state’s largest school system: Over the last several decades, there has been no shortage of superintendents, mayors, or school committee members vowing to rectify a growing list of problems, but in the end, the Boston Public Schools seems to vacillate between incremental progress and regression, leaving many parents and teachers feeling like the district hasn’t changed much since they were students.

“I do believe there needs to be some stronger accountability levers put in place,” said Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, adding that school communities should be involved in those conversations. “What should the consequences be if children continue to not receive the academic and emotional support they are entitled to? … At the end of the day, it’s students and families who are suffering the consequences now.”

Sullivan said the repeated cycles of the state identifying problems with BPS — and BPS crafting plans the state approves but that yield few lasting results — needs to change. The state review in March 2020 uncovered a reason behind that: While the BPS develops ambitious plans, they often are poorly executed, if at all.

Meanwhile, both mayoral finalists have made school change a centerpiece of their campaigns and have vowed to do better. City Councilors Michelle Wu and Annissa Essaibi George are both BPS parents who have experienced the system’s failings, and Essaibi George was a classroom teacher. But would-be mayors have made big promises before, and progress has been, at best, around the edges.

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And so, old patterns could run on. In one sign of persisting inertia this fall, the school system missed key turnaround benchmarks under the March 2020 agreement with the state. At least 80 percent of buses were supposed to run on time over the first two days of school this year, but instead the two-day average was 69 percent, with many students left stranded. The monthly average for September was 85 percent, seven percentage points below target.

A Boston Public Schools bus had engine problems on Bowdoin Street on the first day of school in September. The average for buses running on time over the first two days of school this year was 69 percent.
A Boston Public Schools bus had engine problems on Bowdoin Street on the first day of school in September. The average for buses running on time over the first two days of school this year was 69 percent.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

And yet, Cassellius rejected the state’s offer last month to send in the National Guard to transport students. She said recently BPS didn’t have the vans the Guard was licensed to drive, even though she acknowledged the system could have rented them. She also said the district likely would have had to negotiate with the bus drivers union over using the Guard.

Some state education board members quietly have been pushing for a takeover of the district, with one of them, Matt Hills of Newton, saying at their September meeting, “I am beginning to feel complicit in what’s happening with those students.”

But state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley won’t pursue receivership — at least for now — even as he expresses concern that Boston is moving in the wrong direction.

“We are worried about the damage that the pandemic has done, but we were worried about the issues that were in the BPS before the pandemic,” Riley said in a recent interview. “If it comes to it, we are certainly not immune or afraid to look for receivership. But for right now we have a process in place where we’re trying to extend our technical support and our efforts to help make improvements.”

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The current limited state intervention places the biggest responsibilities on the district, albeit with strict state guidance. The state has ordered the district to dramatically improve nearly three dozen of its lowest performing schools; overhaul special education with an edict to reduce the segregation of students of color with disabilities; increase the efficiency and reliability of its busing fleet; and decrease the number of students who are chronically absent.

The state also has obligations — albeit more limited — under the agreement with the city: Assist the district with diversifying its workforce; monitor bathroom renovations; help schools create outside partnerships; and oversee a group of schools, including some higher-performing ones, with an eye to improving instruction in ways the district could replicate in other schools.

The approach to other needed work remains unclear, including solving the myriad of problems with English learner programs that have persisted, despite an ongoing settlement agreement with the US departments of Justice and Education that began in 2010.

The dysfunction within the BPS is so severe at times the education of many students has effectively halted. During the pandemic many students with language barriers and disabilities had difficulty accessing online learning, which caused them to regress academically and inflicted emotional distress. This fall many of these same students as well as others are missing classes because of tardy or no-show buses and for other reasons.

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Angelys Hidalgo, 5, learned how to find a letter on the keyboard while working on her pre-K schoolwork last Wednesday afternoon. The Hidalgo family is just one of many dealing with online classes because of school closures and the issues that high-speed Internet access bring to many students trying to get their work done.
Angelys Hidalgo, 5, learned how to find a letter on the keyboard while working on her pre-K schoolwork last Wednesday afternoon. The Hidalgo family is just one of many dealing with online classes because of school closures and the issues that high-speed Internet access bring to many students trying to get their work done.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The human consequences of such failings can be seen the experience of Olga Olaverria’s 18-year-old son, who received special education services after suffering a concussion in a car accident in Santo Domingo three years ago. He has been home since the start of the school year. He was supposed to begin college, after his high school, Another Course to College in Hyde Park, offered him an irresistible opportunity earlier this year: If he took the rest of his classes over the summer he could graduate in August.

But then one day before graduation — and after his extended family arrived from Texas — administrators told him he wouldn’t receive his diploma and barred him from the ceremony. At the last minute, administrators mistakenly thought he needed to take the MCAS to graduate, even though the state had exempted scores of seniors from the requirement during the pandemic.

“Some of his friends are already enrolled in college, and he’s staying home and wasting time,” said Olaverria, who eventually tapped legal assistance from Massachusetts Advocates for Children. “I don’t think it’s fair.”

Earlier this month, the school department reversed course and told Olaverria that her son would receive his diploma. Meanwhile, his admission to a local college remains on hold.

There are scores of stories like this one in the Boston schools, and the superintendent is sensitive to that. But in an interview focused on the broad challenges facing her, Cassellius, while she acknowledged the school system needs improvement, insisted BPS is making strides, emphasizing any conflicts with principals and the teachers union are history and the district is investing generously in academic programs and building renovations.

“The story of persevering and accomplishing so much while still in a pandemic and managing the health and safety of our entire community is pretty remarkable,” Cassellius said. “I personally would love to see some attention to that. I mean [we had] the highest graduation rates on record last year.”

According to the most recent state data, the school system’s four-year graduation rate in 2020 was 75.4 percent, capping off more than a decade of mostly steady increases.

Cassellius, who secured her superintendent’s license last month, provided a long list of other accomplishments under the state partnership. Among them: raising graduation requirements to align with admission criteria at state universities — an effort that eluded previous superintendents; changing exam school admission requirements to increase student diversity; $2.6 million in bathroom upgrades at 12 schools; investing $10 million to improve access to drinking water; and hiring an additional 41 instructional coaches, 48 social workers, and 33 family liaisons.

She also defended her efforts to overhaul transportation. Before school reopened, she and Acting Mayor Kim Janey struck a temporary deal with the bus drivers union amid a labor shortage that included $50 daily bonuses for the first week of school. A spokesman noted other transportation improvements, such as monthly data-driven performance reviews that identify improvement areas and result in action plans. Late bus arrivals and missed trips persist, however.

And despite Casselius’s long list of initiatives, MCAS scores remain low. Less than a third of the nearly 19,000 students in grades 3-8 who took the MCAS last spring were at or above grade level in English, while just one in five of them were at or above grade level in math.

Performance was slightly better in Grade 10, with 45 percent scoring at or above grade level in English and 38 percent in math.

Other challenges also remain. The state review in 2020 faulted BPS for constant churn in leadership and that was one reason the School Committee cited as justification for Cassellius’s two-year contract extension in June, on top of a good job review. Yet Cassellius has repeatedly felt the need to reorganize her leadership team, beginning three months into her tenure, and grappled with high turnover.

Over the last 27 months, at least four individuals have served as assistant superintendent for English learners, four have headed up academics, and three others have worked as her chief of staff, according to a Globe review.

The constant churn can derail school improvement efforts, the 2020 state review found, and leadership instability in the English Learners department comes as the district is struggling to overhaul programs after more than a decade of problems complying with federal laws.

Earlier this year, the district pitched a plan to integrate these students into traditional classrooms, a move that would require the district’s roughly 5,000 teachers to gain additional certification in order to teach students who are not fluent in English. But many advocates worried the students wouldn’t get the support they needed if this complicated transition isn’t done right.

”The plan had a big vision but it did not have a clear path for implementation,” said Miren Uriarte, a former Boston School Committee member who serves on the English Learners Task Force, noting it likely would have taken a decade to train all the teachers.

For many longtime Boston families, the state of BPS is notably different than when they enrolled their children years ago for preschool or kindergarten as the district then seemed to brim with optimism and energy. Boston had for a long time stood apart from many urban districts nationwide for its steady leadership, beginning with the 11-year superintendency of Thomas Payzant in 1995 and then continuing for another six years with Carol R. Johnson (with an interim leader between the two).

Elementary schools were adding middle school programs to provide more consistency, arts programming was undergoing a renaissance, and test scores and graduation rates were on the rise. But the system still struggled immensely with inequitable educational opportunities for Black and Latino students — helping to fuel a dramatic growth in charter school enrollment — and often misstepped in overhauling high schools.

According to the state review, academic performance on national tests improved substantially during that period, peaking around 2011, and then eventually lost significant ground as BPS cycled through three superintendents over six years and scores of lieutenants, causing repeated shifts in instruction, programs, and priorities.

When Cassellius arrived in 2019, the School Committee hoped she would propel the system forward and she spent the first several months crafting a new strategic plan with the community. But then the pandemic struck and attention quickly and necessarily pivoted to dispersing Chromebooks and food, devising new ways to teach students online, and then preparing school buildings for the safe return of students.

Signs reminding students to wear face masks and follow a set directional pattern are seen in the stairway of Boston International High School.
Signs reminding students to wear face masks and follow a set directional pattern are seen in the stairway of Boston International High School.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Now, Cassellius has the big task of guiding the district through the recovery from the pandemic — including the academic and emotional toll on students and low staff morale — while also addressing the systemic issues that existed previously, which Cassellius says she never lost focus on.

Many parents and community activists contend that Cassellius should be given more time, doubting receivership would lead to better results. For instance, the state took over two elementary schools in Dorchester in 2014 and performance still hasn’t improved enough and the state is struggling to various degrees with receiverships in Lawrence, Holyoke, and Southbridge.

“I never think state receivership is helpful,” said Ruby Reyes of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “The state just hires outside companies to run things and fire everyone and destroy communities and the schools remain underperforming. The state doesn’t do a good job of thinking comprehensively about the needs of families of color.”

Reyes says the district would be better served if the School Committee was elected by voters, giving families, teachers, and the broader community the power to hold district leaders accountable themselves instead of state bureaucrats. Voters will be asked next month about restoring an elected committee in a non-binding ballot question.

Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union, says the relationship between the union and Cassellius has improved and that they are working together to improve the district.

“BPS has done everything that [the state] asked them and more,” she said. “Can Boston do better? Absolutely. Do we push them to do better every day? Yes. Is receivership the answer? Absolutely not.”

Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, said conversations about receivership emerged between Riley and former mayor Martin J. Walsh in the weeks leading up to the release of the March 2020 review, but all parties decided collaboration was the better choice. Walsh had just committed $100 million to Cassellius’s strategic plan.

Riley said he was willing to give the new superintendent a try.

“We had assurances from the district that they were on this, that they had the right people in place, and that they would set out to make strong improvements in those schools,” Riley said. “Boston was adamant that they could turn their schools around that were most underperforming.”

But a lot has changed since then, from the pandemic to Walsh’s appointment as US labor secretary. And more instability could be on the horizon with the election of a new mayor next month. Both Wu and Essaibi George gave Cassellius a lukewarm assessment during a mayoral debate in September, with each assigning her a C.

Meanwhile, many students and families remain in limbo as they eagerly await the promise of a quality education to be delivered. Those being harmed the most are from disadvantaged backgrounds, said Vernée Wilkinson, a family engagement director at SchoolFacts Boston.

“There are a lot of overdue receipts that parents are stacking on top of one another,” Wilkinson said, “and in the meantime their children continue to matriculate through a system that is on shaky ground at all times.”


James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.