Aketa Narang Kapur only lasted two months heading Boston Public Schools’ Office of English Learners before disappearing from public view in January. The brevity of her tenure shocked observers, who had hoped the rapid turnover in the troubled office had come to an end with Kapur’s appointment.
“She just disappeared, no explanation. Nothing,” said John Mudd, a longtime Boston Public Schools watchdog who sits on the task force that advises the school committee on services for English learners.
The director of the office before Kapur lasted just five months. And, the woman before her, recruited from Wisconsin, left the position after about five months, as well. There was an interim director before the Wisconsin recruit who was in the job about nine months. The last director to hold the position for any length of time left in 2020, after nearly three years on the job.
“I’ve lost count of the number of directors we’ve had recently,” said Rosann Tung, an independent researcher who’s focused on Boston’s English learners and immigrant students. “Leadership instability is a big challenge to meeting the needs of English learners.”
Under Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, six people have been in charge of education for English learners in less than three years. And during this period, the district has struggled to provide all of the services to immigrant students stipulated under an agreement with the Department of Justice. The district’s failure to meet the needs of English learners is one of the key issues behind the threat of a state takeover of Boston Public Schools by Massachusetts education officials.
The turnover has had real consequences for students, say parents and advocates. The district has made little progress meeting parent demand for more services in a student’s native language and English learners are more likely than any other BPS demographic group to drop out of school.
The turnstile of directors underscores the persistent turnover within Cassellius’ leadership team, which she has reshuffled multiple times, including one in February days before Mayor Michelle Wu announced the “mutual” decision that Cassellius would step down at the end of the school year.
The district’s difficulty retaining leadership to head the Office of English Learners also points to philosophical differences over the best way to teach immigrants and other students learning English.
Boston Public Schools representatives confirmed Kapur is not currently working as the assistant superintendent of the Office of English Learners, but refused to answer questions about her absence or whether she is on official leave. According to city payroll documents, she was still collecting her biweekly paycheck of more than $6,000 as of last month.
Kapur declined an interview request. Cassellius’ senior adviser, Megan Costello, said the “district doesn’t comment on personnel matters” when asked to explain the turnover in the office.
When her appointment was announced in October by Deputy Superintendent of Academics Drew Echelson, he touted Kapur’s experience teaching in a school where students learn in two languages and her philosophy that students’ native languages should be valued rather than seen as a liability.
In her most recent role in the human resources department, Kapur was credited with developing a pipeline of bilingual educators, critical for assisting English learners and their parents.
But he didn’t mention in his e-mail to the English learner task force that Kapur had also coached Cassellius to pass her state licensing exams, after it was revealed last year that the superintendent had failed to obtain her superintendent license for Massachusetts. (She has since received her license.)
Furthermore, Kapur’s resume didn’t include experience managing a school or large department.
“Some of us were concerned that it was a big leap for Aketa to move from her work in MTEL (educator licensure) prep to managing the entire Office of English Learners,” said Mudd, the member of the school committee’s English learner task force. “But we worked closely with her and she was clearly deeply committed to providing English learners who needed it access to native language instruction.”
Kapur also had side projects, which may have caused conflicts of interest in her new role.
She was apparently involved with Telescope Education, according to three current and former school officials with knowledge of the relationship who asked not to be identified by name. The private company creates and sells study materials for teachers wanting to pass the MTEL. The company website directs clients to pick up the materials from a BPS employee at the district’s central office. Telescope Education doesn’t appear to be registered in Massachusetts, and there are no directors listed on the company website, but a 2017 federal trademark filing listed Kapur’s home address in Massachusetts.
Since Kapur went on leave, Deputy Chief Academic Officer Farah Assiraj has been overseeing the Office of English Learners, making her the sixth person to lead the department. The state requires districts with 200 or more English learners to have directors of English learners.
Advocates watching the latest office turnover wonder if there was a problem with Kapur’s background, why wasn’t it found before she was hired.
“No doubt there are problems with their internal [vetting] system and the hiring process,” said Roxann Harvey, chair of Boston’s Special Education Parent Advisory Council, noting there have been three people in charge of the district’s special education office during Cassellius’ tenure.
One factor that may have played a role in the continued instability at the Office of English Learners, was Cassellius’ belief early on that the office shouldn’t exist.
Cassellius floated the idea of dismantling the department to Priya Tahiliani, who headed the office when Cassellius became superintendent in the summer of 2019, according to Tahiliani, who is now the superintendent of Everett Public Schools.
That October, Cassellius called Tahiliani into her office and said students learning English should be everyone’s responsibility. While Tahiliani agreed, she thought if there wasn’t a dedicated department the district wouldn’t know if English learners were getting the appropriate services and no one would be accountable.
For these reasons, Tahiliani “started looking at other options” and left Boston in 2020 to head Everett’s school system.
As the state conducts a wide-reaching examination of Boston schools for the second time in less than three years, reviewers will measure progress in meeting the needs of special education students and English learners, among others.
As part of the review, the state held a “focus group” over Zoom last month with parents of English learners, which the Globe watched. A Portuguese-speaking mother called the system for enrolling her children in district schools a “nightmare to navigate.”
The mother of two Chinese-speaking children in the district, who spoke through an interpreter and only introduced herself as Jenny, said the district needs to better support students learning English who are in special education. She complained that her third-grader attending the Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown can’t get help in Chinese.
“Why do we have a Spanish-speaking [teacher’s assistant] for Chinese speaking students?” she asked. “The Chinese-speaking students would like someone who is a native-speaking Chinese teacher or teacher’s assistant to support them. It would be better for them to learn.”