Mary Skipper’s mother wanted one thing for her: a good education. A single mother who almost didn’t finish high school, Skipper’s mother wanted her daughter to have the opportunities she did not.
”She felt that education was my best shot,” Skipper, the Somerville schools chief told the Boston School Committee Thursday evening as part of her public interview to become the next Boston superintendent.
“Teachers were surrogate parents to me. They played a deep role in my life ... It felt like something I just knew I needed to do, so I became a teacher.”
Skipper was the first of two superintendent finalists to be publicly interviewed this week, with Tommy Welch, a regional superintendent for Boston Public Schools, due to be interviewed Friday.
Since joining Boston Public Schools as a teacher, Skipper moved her way up as she’s worked to remove external barriers students encounter, she said. Skipper laid out her goals and plans for the Boston district and its 49,000 students during a series of interviews spanning about eight hours with community members, educators, students and the School Committee.
Questions focused on how Skipper will address the highly diverse needs of Boston, an 85 percent non-white district where one in five students have disabilities, nearly half of students speak a first language other than English and over two-thirds are low-income. Responding in part to community concerns about the lack of diversity in the two-candidate finalist slate, Skipper, who is white, said she would have to lean on her team and the community to serve all students. She said she was alarmed that the slate of candidates wasn’t more diverse and called her lack of a second language a “deficit.”
Skipper drew on her experiences in Somerville — also a diverse district — and in Boston, where she was a principal and a high school superintendent, to describe how she would partner with local organizations, listen to advocates on the ground and dig into the data to address achievement gaps and other student needs.
“I may not be able to understand their experiences, but I can listen, and I can commit to making their priorities, our priorities,” Skipper told one panel.
Here are some other highlights from Skipper’s interviews:
When Skipper joined Somerville, the district was being monitored by the state for racial disparities in special education, she said. The district also had high dropout rates and an unusually high level of out-of-district students.
Skipper said the district revamped special education programs and was successful in lowering those numbers.
Skipped said she would redesign Boston’s Individualized Education Plan program with social and emotional needs in mind, ensure special education students who are also English learners have all the support they need and work to rebuild trust with families of special needs students by being honest and transparent.
On her stance on a policy of native-language instruction for students with a first language other than English, she praised programs including the seal of biliteracy and expanded native language services, but has not worked on initiatives programs like Boston’s dual-language schools, she said.
“I have not been directly involved where a school system’s gone from a sheltered English immersion system to a native language instruction one,” Skipper said. “If that is something the community’s looking to do, I would clearly help support and make that happen.”
Closing achievement gaps
Skipper described a wide variety of strategies for improving outcomes for Black students, ranging from improving recruitment and retention of Black teachers, combating bias that results in Black male students being put in substantially separate special education programs, digging into data on the ways students are struggling and forming partnerships with other organizations.
Skipper touted the Calculus Project as an initiative to expand access to advanced math for students of color.
“We made significant progress in the skills gap, but most importantly, they also saw themselves as mathematicians,” she said.
Skipper said that wherever possible facilities that can be upgraded should be, but “there will probably be situations where a facility is so aged or old you can’t really bring it to a standard that the students deserve.”
“I’ve been through a number of closures,” Skipper said. “In those situations, you want to really ... work to address any trauma that’s happening.”
The district should ensure communities losing their schools get a “tradeoff” in the form of a bigger, nicer building.
“In general, when we talk about human capital, we put a lot of focus on hiring and recruitment, but we don’t put as much focus on development and advancement,” she said, “and that actually is the thing that I think most influences retention. So I’d like to really kind of dig down and see what we have going on here.”
She also said all educators can benefit from having more sensitivity training, anti-bias training, that could help teachers in the classroom post-pandemic, and also wants to ensure educators have reliable social-emotional support in their schools.
“The first thing is really setting the non-negotiables,” Skipper said about fixing the district’s busing problems. “Students need to be picked up. They need to be picked up on time, and they need to be picked up every day. And then you start working from that to say, how is the system orchestrated to make that happen.”
She also would look at the data, consider bringing in outside organizations that have run large bus networks before, and being transparent with families.
Madison Park Vocational High School
Skipper had multiple ideas for expanding the role of Madison Park in the district, including making the school available to graduates to come back and learn skills or even get a certification.
“It could be a resource to our alumni, and it could be a resource to the community,” Skipper said.
She would also like to introduce students to the school earlier, by giving middle school students a chance to visit and talk to the students at the school.”