A dispute between Boston education leaders and an ousted administrator has opened a window on the district’s inability to maintain stable leadership within the central office and continued failure to meet the needs of immigrant students.
The administrator in charge of English learning said she resigned when threatened with firing after she repeatedly complained the district was improperly steering students into regular classes instead of special smaller programs designed just for them. But, according to Aketa Narang Kapur and her lawyer, officials from Boston Public Schools said she violated conflict of interest policies by improperly obtaining two laptops for her staff from a former business partner.
The dispute threatens to bring scrutiny of the district from the US Department of Justice, which oversees a legal agreement that requires BPS to provide a certain amount of specialized services by trained educators. Narang Kapur has since sent a letter to Justice Department officials alleging the district retaliated against her because she said BPS wasn’t following aspects of the DOJ agreement.
The dispute comes as Boston is battling with Massachusetts education officials over a potential takeover of the district. On May 23, the state released a scathing review citing BPS “continued leadership instability” and pointedly noted that English learners are not getting the appropriate instruction.
“There’s still hundreds of [English learners] still not getting their federally entitled services,” Massachusetts Education Commissioner Jeff Riley told state education board members last Tuesday. “We’ve got to do better.”
The dispute also reveals some of the internal battles in a school administration wracked by turnover among its senior leaders.
“BPS disputes Ms. Narang Kapur’s statement that she was a whistleblower or that BPS took any retaliatory action against her,” Gabrielle Farrell, the district’s chief communications officer, said in a statement.
Appointed to her position as assistant superintendent in November, Narang Kapur hadn’t started work when she began raising concerns about midlevel immigrant students not receiving the appropriate services. She said she raised the issue at least four more times, before being placed on leave in December after less than four weeks on the job.
At the time, she had been the fifth person to lead the troubled office of English learners since Brenda Cassellius became superintendent nearly three years ago. Much of the job involves compliance with a federal agreement outlining the services English learners should receive, down to the total minutes of instruction.
The Department of Justice has monitored the school system’s services to English learners since 2010, after federal and state investigators found the district wasn’t properly identifying English learners and school leaders were encouraging parents to decline special classes their children were entitled to for lack of space.
Right before she officially took the position, a task force of advocates, parents, and educators that advises the School Committee on English learner education had complained to Cassellius about a policy change to move some midlevel English learners out of specialized smaller classes into general education. In all, 227 out of 381 midlevel English learners were moved into regular classes, according to the district.
“We are concerned that what is described may constitute ‘dumping’ students into General Education,” the task force wrote in a Nov. 5 letter. “General Education is not the appropriate setting for” level 3 English learners.
Narang Kapur agreed with the task force and raised the issue with her supervisor one week before she started, on her first day of work, and then at least three more times, according to Narang Kapur. She said she felt dismissed by her supervisors. (Narang Kapur would not name her supervisors for fear of further retaliation, and that it would affect her ability to find work in other districts.)
Since resigning last month, Narang Kapur reached out to the Department of Justice with her concerns.
“Administrators perceived me as a whistleblower that could potentially cause issues for BPS,” Narang Kapur wrote in a May 17 letter to the Department of Justice that she supplied to the Globe. “The actions that the BPS took to benefit itself as an organization rather than the students, families, and teachers should be carefully scrutinized.”
To longtime observers of the district’s practices on English learners, Narang Kapur’s allegations of retaliation point to a pattern.
“If this is true, this is consistent with our long-term worry that despite all of the rhetoric, the practice is to dump English learners into general education,” said John Mudd, a district watchdog and a member of the School Committee’s English language learners task force.
Narang Kapur also argued that under the DOJ agreement and a state law the district was required to get consent from parents before moving their children out of specialized classes.
“Without transparency, communication, and honesty, we cannot build trust with families and teachers,” Narang Kapur said in an interview.
It’s not clear whether the district informed all parents about the change to their children’s education. The district recommended communicating the change to parents, but in a sample letter offered to school leaders to send to parents, the district leaders incorrectly stated the conditions outlined in the DOJ agreement. It’s not clear if any school leaders used this letter.
“Our agreement with the Department of Justice states that [level 3 English learners] students should not remain in Sheltered English Immersion courses for more than one year,” the district wrote. “We apologize for the late notice and inconvenience of switching teachers and classrooms after school has already started, but we believe that it will be beneficial for your students to receive services that are appropriate for their language development,“ reads the sample letter.
A districtwide memo sent to educators in September also incorrectly attributes the move into general education classes to the DOJ agreement.
However, the DOJ agreement states midlevel students should not be grouped in classes with students with less fluency in English as a second language for longer than one academic year. It does not say midlevel students should attend general education classes. (An alternative that would meet the DOJ criteria would be to create English as a second language classes for these midlevel students.)
Narang Kapur was placed on leave Dec. 11, two days before she was to attend an introductory meeting with the Department of Justice.
While she said her advocacy drove her supervisors to put her on leave, the district has accused her of violating conflict of interest laws over two donated computers from a former business associate, according to her attorney.
When Narang Kapur was preparing to begin her job, she learned that two new employees wouldn’t have what she considered adequate computers. So, Narang Kapur reached out to people she knew for help.
“It’s what educators do … when they don’t have resources,” Narang Kapur said. “I’m just that person who asks everybody” for help.
Her former business partner, Julia Finkelstein, agreed to donate two computers. Narang Kapur said she got the go-ahead from the head of procurement at her former BPS department — where she was still working at the time — and was told to follow the district’s protocols for technology donations.
Narang Kapur had divested in 2019 from Telescope Education, the company she founded with Finkelstein three years before. Once Narang Kapur left the company, Finkelstein, who lives in Atlanta, started selling her training program for teacher accreditation directly to BPS in 2019.
Narang Kapur said she hadn’t yet filed a disclosure about the computers when the head of IT for BPS informed her she hadn’t followed procedure correctly. She offered to return the computers, which she did.
Days later, Narang Kapur was placed on leave.
“I was just trying to solve problems,” she said. “You can’t do something and change a system unless you unpack it and expose. I want the system to improve. I want what’s best for students and families and teachers.”