Mano Katsompenakis finds it challenging to be an involved and knowledgeable Boston Public Schools parent — and he’s probably not the only one. But Katsompenakis, a Greek immigrant, has found an ally: a relatively unknown local podcast.
The Boston School Committee meetings are where many important decisions are made that have a meaningful impact in the classroom and, for parents like Katsompenakis, it’s difficult to keep up with them.
Enter “Last Night at School Committee,” a podcast cohosted by Jill Shah and Ross Wilson.
“Jill and Ross seem to be very well versed with what’s been happening at BPS for years,” said Katsompenakis, who has a seventh-grader and a fifth-grader. The cohosts “will say about an issue, ‘Oh, a year ago this happened.’ They bring context for someone like me who may not have been aware.”
With episodes that range between 20 minutes to just under an hour, Shah and Wilson aim to demystify what transpires in the typically dense meetings. There is careful but opinionated analysis — in a recent episode, Wilson expressed mild outrage about the lack of public discussion about the drop in test scores among BPS’s English learners — but the hosts steer clear of political punditry. Instead, they provide meeting highlights that often include soundbites recorded from the meetings, bring relevant background to long-term issues, and try to explain complicated and jargony discussions about education policy in a digestible format.
At its core, the podcast, which was recently made available in Spanish as “Anoche en el Comité Escolar,” is providing a crucial and opportune service to Bostonians. And it illuminates the black hole that BPS is often perceived to be. The podcast can also be seen as a local manifestation of a heated national debate and active trend: Parents are demanding more accountability from their school boards. We saw it last month when Boston voters resoundingly approved a nonbinding ballot question to switch from an appointed school board to an elected one. (Katsompenakis voted yes.)
The podcast, which will turn three next month, is the brainchild of the Shah Family Foundation, established by Jill and her husband, Wayfair cofounder Niraj Shah. Wilson has been the foundation’s executive director since its creation, in 2017; previously, he spent more than 15 years working at BPS in various roles, including as a teacher, principal, and administrator, most recently as deputy superintendent. Jill Shah is the president of the foundation, which has partnered with the city of Boston to build kitchens in the Boston schools and with the city of Chelsea during the coronavirus pandemic to help fund a groundbreaking universal guaranteed income pilot program, among other philanthropic initiatives.
The idea for the podcast came about organically. Shah would watch school committee meetings to learn what problems in the system the foundation could potentially help with. “I used to come in, after the meeting that I had just listened to, and just pepper [Wilson] with questions,” Shah said. “If they’re talking about buses, what was the data that they’re presenting? Was there data that they were leaving out? Were there questions that weren’t being asked? And it was so interesting to get this inside-baseball take on what happened. We said, ‘We should be amplifying this conversation.’ All parents should be privy to this understanding of what’s actually happening at meetings [where members] are making decisions that affect 54,000 kids.”
To be clear, the School Committee meetings are recorded and available to watch after they take place. But that’s not practical, Katsompenakis told me. “It’s not edited. If you want to just hear about the budget or a certain presentation, you have to figure it out on your own.”
John Mudd, a Boston education activist, has been a fixture at committee meetings since the early 1990s. Mudd hasn’t listened to the podcast but he said the committee needs “to innovate in developing ways for increased dialogue with parents, stakeholders, advocates, and experts.” Recently, the district has made investments to offer language interpretation during meetings, which Mudd noted as a positive.
“Last Night at School Committee,” which just partnered with WBUR to expand its reach, has been downloaded over 1,200 times in the past month, according to a foundation spokesman. The figure represents a doubling of listenership from this time last year, the spokesman said.
As for BPS’s future, Shah said she would like to see the district in numbers. “How many kids are in each building? How many classrooms are being used or overused or underused?” Wilson would like more sunshine on how the district is spending the federal stimulus dollars. And they both would like to see Mayor Michelle Wu finally implement the promise of universal Pre-K, reinstitute a principal Cabinet or some sort of leadership structure where the voices of school leaders can be elevated, and invest in open-enrollment high schools.
And yet, change will require grass-roots engagement, which means reaching parents where they’re at. Mindless minutia and bureaucrat-speak don’t work. Context does. That’s what makes “Last Night at School Committee” so vital.