English-language learners are among the most vulnerable of students, in no small part because of the complex educational challenges they face mastering a new language along with their regular academic subjects. At the Boston Public Schools, where English learners represent about 30 percent of the student population and speak more than 70 different native languages, they are typically among the lowest-performing students. Indeed, the district’s record is so poor that the federal government intervened in 2012, requiring BPS to provide adequate services.
That’s why it’s deeply concerning to learn of the leadership instability at the office within BPS responsible for English learners. The Globe’s Bianca Vázquez Toness reported last week that six people have been in charge of the office under Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, who, after less than three years on the job, is leaving in June.
The last person hired, Aketa Narang Kapur, had been leading the office for only two months before she went on leave in January without any public explanation. A spokesperson for the Boston schools, citing privacy concerns, said the district cannot comment on personnel matters and thus did not offer a reason for Kapur’s absence. According to city records, Kapur was still receiving a paycheck as of last month: a biweekly salary of more than $6,000. The district’s deputy chief academic officer, Farah Assiraj, is filling in as interim assistant superintendent for the English learners office.
The English learners office isn’t the only part of the BPS central office that has seen turnover. The special education office has had three people in charge since Cassellius became superintendent. And there are unconfirmed reports that a fair number of principals have given their notice and won’t be returning next year, prompting fears of an exodus of school leaders. The BPS spokesperson would not say how many principals are leaving, but did say that many of those who have given their notice are taking other jobs in the district.
Taken together, the workforce turnover at the executive level and at the schools — not to mention at the very top — points to a deeply unstable district. These structural challenges must be front-of-mind as the Boston School Committee undergoes the search for a new leader. For now, the School Committee and Mayor Michelle Wu must demand answers from Cassellius regarding the workforce turnover.
Of course, Boston is not the only urban school district that is facing human capital challenges. And superintendents are also changing jobs at a higher rate: Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than a third of the 500 largest districts in the country have gone or are going through superintendent searches.
An exodus of school leaders, even if they’re moving to take other jobs within the system, is of concern because of the disruptive effect the departure of a principal has in the school community. It is critical for the district to figure out — and be transparent about — why the principals are leaving. Is it a case of pandemic burnout? Or is there something more serious going on that requires a targeted response?
The high turnover at the top of Boston’s special education and English learners offices is especially troubling because those are two of the areas where Boston struggles the most.
According to the 2020 state-led review of the district, special education services are in “systemic disarray, [and] do not provide appropriate learning opportunities in the least restrictive environment for all students with disabilities,” read the review. The review also noted that the district has failed to create equitable conditions to make sure all English learners progress academically and in their English language abilities.
Since 2012, Boston has been under federal settlement agreements precisely for failing to educate English learners. And a second state audit of BPS, which is largely finished, is focusing on three main areas, according to what Deputy Superintendent of Academics Drew Echelson told the City Council earlier this month: outcomes for special-education students, transportation, and the state of BPS buildings.
BPS defended the work of the English learners office. In a memo sent to the School Committee’s English learner task force in early April, Assiraj, the interim leader of the office, noted that as of March 2020, 74 percent of students were receiving appropriate English language services, compared to 70 percent in December 2021. Yes, that’s progress. But that still means one-quarter of BPS students who are learning English aren’t getting appropriate services.
It’s in the best interest of district officials to be transparent about the human capital challenges it is currently facing, especially because of the ongoing superintendent search and state audit. It is critical to understand existing leadership and academic gaps so that the right superintendent is chosen. Anything else would be a disservice to the next district leader, and to the most vulnerable and underserved Boston students.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.