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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Big challenges confront Boston schools amid leadership shakeup: ‘We don’t want things to move backwards’

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius and Mayor Michelle Wu spoke outside Brighton High School on Tuesday, a day after Cassellius announced her departure.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

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Mayor Michelle Wu and Superintendent Brenda Cassellius attempted to reassure the public Tuesday that school improvement efforts will move forward as Cassellius prepares to leave the job, but big questions remain about whether momentum will stall or if a new leader will shift priorities.

The district is in the midst of a number of major endeavors that could skid off course, including negotiating new contracts with the teachers and bus drivers unions, implementing new exam-school admission requirements, aligning high school graduation standards to state university admission criteria, and adding seventh and eighth grades to high schools and sixth grades to elementary schools in part to address declining enrollment.

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And school leaders still are figuring out how best to tend to the academic and social-emotional needs of their students as the pandemic drags on, while the state is pushing urgent changes on several fronts, including overhauls of special education and English learner programs and getting school buses to run on time.

“I feel like the Boston Public Schools has had a lot of transitions in the last few years with different superintendents and Boston has had a lot of change with three mayors,” said Ruby Reyes, director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance. “Our hope is that the initiatives she started that were quite good will continue. We don’t want things to move backwards in those areas.”

At Brighton High School Tuesday morning, Wu and Cassellius made clear that their shared goal of boosting the academic rigor of high schools will remain a top priority as well as other initiatives, including getting a $1.3 billion school budget passed for next year. Their school visit came one day after the two announced Cassellius would be leaving the job at the end of the school year, ending months of speculation about her future in a new mayoral administration.

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“I’m still here for five months and rolling up my sleeves, getting this work done each and every day and just excited about the work that we’ve been able to accomplish,” said Cassellius as she stood alongside Wu.

Cassellius said her successor will benefit from the work BPS has done during her tenure.

“We’ve really set up a strong foundation for the next superintendent to come in and take the mantle and carry it forward,” Cassellius said.

Wu said a “huge part” of Cassellius’s legacy will be “opening up community engagement and bringing in our families to be firmly part of decision-making processes and that’s what we’ll continue to do.”

Brighton High in many ways exemplifies both the challenges and the momentum around school improvement. It had enrollment of about 1,200 students a decade ago, but that fell to 360 students this fall, although school officials say 90 new students have registered since then.

The state declared the school underperforming in 2016 — two superintendents ago — due to low MCAS scores and graduation rates. But after years of struggling to get the school on course, Cassellius installed a skilled principal, Andrew Bott, in 2020. Bott has been adding more rigorous and a larger variety of courses and career pathways such as biomedical science, which have given many families and education advocates optimism about improvements there and at other district high schools.

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“I was surprised I could take anatomy,” said 10th-grader Kahmi Dorsey,15, adding that it’s his favorite class and that he finds the overall school environment supportive. “The teachers are great. They help me a lot.”

Bott said he is working to add seventh and eighth grades this fall and will be hiring 10 new teachers. The new middle-school program should help prepare students for the more challenging high school courses, he said.

“I see a really clear path and achievable path,” said Bott, a former Brookline superintendent who previously achieved success turning around Orchard Gardens K-8 School in Roxbury. “I hope that the next leader is committed to it.”

But he added, “transitions are always unsettling.”

Jeri Robinson, chair of the School Committee, which is appointed by Wu and has the official power to hire a superintendent, said the board will discuss the next steps for hiring a replacement at its next meeting, Tuesday.

“We’ll be looking at where we are now, and together we will decide how we move forward together,” said Robinson.

The goal is to hire a permanent superintendent by the start of the next school year, city and district leaders have said, an ambitious timeline. Recent superintendent searches in Boston have taken close to a year or longer, and have been marked by delays.

And the superintendent market is hot. Since March 2020, when school districts nationwide began to shut down due to the pandemic, more than a third of the nation’s 500 largest districts have undertaken superintendent searches or are currently conducting one, according to a report released last week by ILO Group, a women-founded national education strategy and policy firm. The report found the gender gap widening, with men accounting for 70 percent of the new hires.

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Wu has suggested a preference for a superintendent who knows the district well, saying “we need someone who can truly hit the ground running immediately.”

She also has provided some insight into what initiatives should continue, such as expanding access to early education and redesigning high schools.

But several stakeholders contend some areas need reexamining, including the long-term facilities plan BuildBPS, which has been faulted for lacking clear timelines for construction projects and rosy enrollment projections.

Michael Contompasis, a former Boston school superintendent, said some new priorities will likely need to be added, including changing the school assignment process for the younger grades, giving principals more flexibility over curriculum and staffing, and integrating more students with disabilities into general education classrooms. Bringing about the necessary changes will challenge the next leader.

“It’s finding the political will to deal with difficulties that have been well identified and have not been addressed,” he said. “You have to have the gumption to stand up to the impediments to do things that need to be done.”

For now, district leaders need to provide as much stability as possible, especially in preventing the exodus of talented educators and administrators, said Will Austin, chief executive officer of the Boston Schools Fund.

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“I think it’s really important for the city to listen to teachers and principals and make sure they know what they need and that they feel supported,” he said. “We want to make sure there won’t be a lot of turnover.”

He noted that school improvement is complicated and takes years to execute.

Instability, which has long challenged Cassellius’ leadership team, is continuing. Most notably, her recently appointed assistant superintendent overseeing the English learners program is off the job and she just appointed a senior adviser to oversee special education. The state singled out both of those areas in a district review in 2020 for massive overhauls.

“The superintendent’s departure leaves me concerned for the special education crisis in BPS,” said Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, “and hopeful that Mayor Wu has a plan to engage families and community stakeholders to hire a superintendent that can immediately address the necessary policy changes and strategic vision that needs to occur to support BPS’ most vulnerable students.”



James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis. Bianca Vázquez Toness can be reached at bianca.toness@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter at @biancavtoness. Travis Andersen can be reached at travis.andersen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TAGlobe.