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THE GREAT DIVIDE

With BPS in crisis, pressure mounts for Wu to become the ‘education mayor’

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu has told Massachusetts education officials she opposes a state takeover of Boston Public Schools.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

An ongoing search for a new Boston schools leader, happening on an extremely tight timeline. A battle over how School Committee members should be chosen, pitting City Hall leaders against voter preferences. A school closing after campus leaders mishandled allegations of sexual abuse, bullying, and neglect; bullets found in another; campus attacks with weapons as varied as firearms, laptops, and boiling ramen noodles.

And the ongoing effort to ward off a possible state schools takeover, made more urgent by a blistering report last month that described a system failing vulnerable students and a culture of “entrenched dysfunction.”

A perennial disappointment for parents and albatross for city leaders, Boston Public Schools is snowballing into a political emergency for Mayor Michelle Wu, presenting a pivotal moment in her young tenure. A mayor who entered office with an ambitious list of priorities will need to course correct the city’s schools, or risk being defined by their failure.

The district’s longstanding problems are not of Wu’s making, but they fall to her to solve. Every Boston mayor before her has tackled the behemoth challenges of BPS, but success largely eluded them. The coming weeks will mark Wu’s first major effort to make her mark on the system, with the education of 49,000 students — and, potentially, her political future — at stake.

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“Whoever would be sitting in her chair right now … would feel the weight of this moment,” said Samuel Acevedo, executive director of the Boston Higher Education Resource Center, a nonprofit that helps first generation youth of color thrive in college, and a former member of two Boston superintendent search committees. “Whatever it takes for BPS to ensure that every student achieves and thrives, at whatever cost to our way of doing things, it has to happen…. There is no other option. We’re not going to get a second chance.”

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In the next few days, Wu must forge a deal with state education leaders to stave off a takeover and on Thursday it became apparent there are wide gulfs between them. Wu favors a partnership with the state while Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has proposed more of a top-down approach in which Wu would be directly accountable to him for school improvement.

In the weeks following, she must find a superintendent prepared to take on an immensely challenging district, where school leaders tend not to last long. The summer will bring a debate over changing the makeup of the mayoral-appointed Boston School Committee: Boston voters overwhelmingly support an elected body; Wu favors a hybrid model. And until the district completely stems violent outbursts and lifts all its students to grade-level, she will face questions from families suffering from the ongoing failures of the system.

Regardless of the resources the state provides or the role it takes in shaping BPS, “families and educators will be looking at the city to improve the city’s schools, not the state,” said Will Austin, chief executive of the Boston Schools Fund, a nonprofit aiming to place more students in high-quality schools.

“Folks in Malden aren’t on the ballot,” he added, referring to officials with the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which is based in that city.

The city’s schools are tied up in Wu’s personal life and political identity. The first BPS mother ever elected mayor, she picks up her sons from school at least once or twice each week and gets them ready every morning. As a city councilor, she struggled to find her son Blaise a coveted placement in the district’s preschool program. Before she was a parent, she shepherded her younger sister Tori through middle school and Boston Latin as her legal guardian.

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Those experiences shaped her priorities as mayor, she said in an interview last week.

“I will stake the legacy of our administration on how we do for our young people,” Wu said. “This is a pivotal moment for the city, and I have faith in what’s possible for our system.”

Does Wu believe the city’s schools pose the greatest challenge of her administration? The mayor is relentlessly optimistic. “They’re the biggest opportunity,” she insisted.

And why will she succeed, where predecessors failed? “We have no other choice,” she said.

But Wu has not yet hired an education adviser to assist her in planning for BPS and to guide her choice of superintendent — and some advocates say her recent efforts on school changes seemed like a reaction to the threat of state intervention.

“With receivership looming, the mayor’s office had to be more vocal about BPS,” said Vernée Wilkinson of SchoolFacts Boston, a group that provides support and information to families.

Wilkinson commended Wu for a $2 billion environmentally friendly school construction initiative but said the proposal had been launched without sufficient community engagement. And the top priority for many families, Wilkinson said, is not environmentally-friendly new buildings but stronger academic programs.

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“It’s weird to live in the irony of a title town [of championship sports teams] when the most vulnerable constituents are being neglected one generation after another generation,” Wilkinson said.

Still, many teachers, parents, and other BPS supporters remain hopeful Wu will steer the district in the right direction.

“Mayor Wu has stepped up to take responsibility in the face of an extraordinary challenge and we should give her the opportunity and support that she needs to succeed,” said Neil Sullivan, a policy adviser to former mayor Raymond L. Flynn and currently executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a workforce development organization whose board is appointed by Wu.

Every mayor in recent memory has faced a massive crisis with BPS. Kevin White, who led the city from 1968 to 1983, grappled with the desegregation of the schools; Flynn, who took office in 1984, was so outraged by the dysfunction of the elected School Committee that he waged a campaign to appoint the members himself. Thomas M. Menino, the mayor from 1993 to 2013, faced the loss of accreditation of several high schools and famously challenged residents in 1996 to “judge me harshly” if the schools didn’t improve.

And Martin J. Walsh, who left his post last year, came into City Hall with big ideas to overhaul public education, creating a chief of schools position and launching a $1 billion construction program. But he struggled to find the right superintendent to lead the district and faced a crisis with racial discrimination at Boston Latin School.

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In the end, each mayor handed his successor a school system plagued by the same stubborn problems: immense dysfunction, staggering enrollment declines, wide disparities in achievement and educational opportunities for students of different racial backgrounds, and swelling school spending that didn’t seem to be making its way into classrooms.

Education was a focus for Wu during her campaign for mayor, but it was one of many. She said her administration started working on schools “from day one,” though some other emergencies appeared to dominate her first few months in office: surging COVID-19 cases, and the attendant debates over vaccine mandates for city workers; and the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, where dozens of people were living in tents ahead of a frigid Boston winter.

She was late in making two School Committee appointments and went months without taking a formal stance on whether Superintendent Brenda Cassellius should remain in the job. In February, Wu and the superintendent announced Cassellius would leave at the end of June.

By then, though, the crisis with the state appeared to be mounting. Wu met with Riley just a few days before Cassellius’ departure announcement, although both insisted the future of BPS, and not the superintendent, was the focus of their talk.

This spring, the state embarked on its second review of the district in less than three years. In an extraordinary move for a Boston mayor, Wu traveled to Malden in March to urge the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education not to put BPS into receivership. And in May she announced a flurry of initiatives.

The mayor pledged to spend $2 billion to upgrade deteriorating school facilities, including 14 new buildings or major renovations. Her administration inked a $17 million meals contract with City Fresh Foods, a Roxbury-based, Black-owned company. Wu expanded early college programs. And her administration secured a new agreement with school bus drivers that stipulates they can no longer skip work without notifying supervisors, an effort to ensure all routes are covered every day. (City school buses routinely arrive late — or not at all — sometimes forcing students to miss school.)

Wu and her team also recently waded into protracted negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union over a new contract. A new deal could be crucial for enacting major changes to the school system.

Jessica Tang, the union’s president, said she is confident Wu is putting BPS on the right path.

“In less than six months Mayor Wu has already played an important role in making needed changes and investments in BPS and has been an ally on a number of different issues,” Tang said.

The biggest challenges are yet to come. Those include bringing leadership stability to BPS, ending chronic dysfunction, shoring up academic programs and social-emotional supports so all students can have lifelong success, and restoring faith and trust among families in a system that all too often has let them down and has prompted a number of them to leave.

“It’s a particularly fraught moment — you have the convergence of a number of very challenging factors, all occurring simultaneously,” said Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts education secretary who has been publicly supporting Wu. “At one level it could be overwhelming to a system. And at another level it could be a big opportunity for new leadership.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff. James Vaznis can be reached at james.vaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.