In her first public appearance after being named the new Boston Public Schools superintendent, Mary Skipper said a vision for the district must be built collaboratively as a city and school community.
“This has to be a vision we build together,” Skipper said at TechBoston Academy on Thursday.
“Whether it’s a school custodian, whether it’s a safety officer, whether it is a cafeteria or food service worker, whether it’s a teacher, an administrator, a parent leader, everyone needs to come together to build that vision with us,” Skipper said. “That’s the way BPS is going to shine.”
The Boston School Committee Wednesday night narrowly chose Skipper to be the next leader of the troubled school district. On Thursday, Skipper said she wants BPS to be a place where families trust what district officials say they will do.
Skipper laid out her priorities, including improving special education, English language learners, and native language access, as well as supporting teaching and learning.
“We have to get it right,” she said, “...If buses don’t work, if buildings aren’t safe and if they’re not clean, and if teachers don’t have the training that they need for day one — those are all the things that help our staff and our community feel ready and trustworthy in the work that we do. So that’s going to be the priority.”
Skipper will be taking over BPS at a crucial time, as the district averted a state takeover and being labeled underperforming earlier this week by agreeing to a district improvement plan she will now be charged with seeing through. She’s been following the agreement and said she invites the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education as partners.
There are clear guidelines the state has laid in terms of the partnership with BPS, Skipper said, that she wants to honor with enthusiasm. She and acting superintendent of BPS, Drew Echelson, already have had conversations about appointing a senior level executive to help build the team to get started on that work, ensuring its execution and transparency.
“I’ve had the fortune of working with the Department of Ed in my career, both here in Boston and in Somerville, and I see them as a partner in the work,” Skipper said, adding the district’s main partners, though, are going to be the teacher’s union, school leaders, and central office administrators.
“We’ll make sure that we’re meeting the deadlines,” she said. “Aug. 15 being the first, and we’ll be well prepared for that, there’s no question, and again, Dr. Echelson and I will be working very closely every day I’m sure. Many hours to make sure that that happens.”
Boston Teacher’s Union President Jessica Tang said in a statement Thursday that the next key step following the state agreement and new superintendent is for BPS to agree to a contract with educators. Tang said she welcomes Skipper back to BPS and will “work together to building the schools our students — and our communities — deserve.”
One challenge for Skipper will be earning the confidence of those who criticized the search process, whether for the unusual speed of the search or for the lack of diversity in the finalists. Bostonians for an Elected School Committee and the Boston NAACP chapter both called for an extension or relaunch of the search process Tuesday.
Krista Magnuson, a member of Bostonians for an Elected School Committee, said the issue was never the individual candidates and that the process was not Skipper’s fault.
“None of this was because she wasn’t capable,” Magnuson said. “It was really just that the artificial deadline imposed on the process has always been a concern.”
Magnuson noted that the many people who have worked with Skipper in Boston speak highly of her, and said her group would work with her to get the best outcomes for Boston kids.
Longtime BPS watchdog John Mudd had said Wednesday night that moving forward with the vote despite community concerns would be “unfair to the new superintendent.” But now, having been picked, Skipper must “focus on the critical priorities of the job,” namely, the elimination of achievement gaps.
Skipper previously worked in Boston for nearly two decades, teaching at Boston Latin Academy before working her way from principal to district administrator overseeing three dozen high schools. A decade ago, then-president Barack Obama held up her school, TechBoston Academy, as a national model when he delivered a speech there.
School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson on Thursday welcomed Skipper “home” and stressed Skipper and her team will need support from everyone “through all of the good and the hard times that we know are coming.”
“Mary has come back to Boston, but you see what she built before she left Boston, and how it’s continued to grow,” Robinson said. “To come back after a while, to walk into a building filled with love, enthusiasm, and excitement about leadership, this is what we need completely across our district.”
Skipper has been superintendent of Somerville schools since 2015. The district is considerably smaller than Boston: it has about a dozen schools and fewer than 5,000 students, who are less diverse and more affluent than Boston, which has 49,000 students and 121 schools.
BPS officials have not yet negotiated Skipper’s superintendent contract and no exact date has been shared about when she’ll take on her BPS duties full-time, but she estimated sometime in September.
“I see the transition in Somerville, and have spoken with Somerville about this as a transition sort of phasing in and phasing out,” she said. “Phasing into Boston and a phasing out of Somerville.”
She expects to talk with Echelson and the BPS team on a “daily basis” on key decisions, but also wants to ensure that Somerville is left prepared for her departure.
“[I’m] very excited, every day, that I wake up to work nine hours in Boston and nine hours in Somerville,” she said.