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THE GREAT DIVIDE

Acting Boston school chief steps into spotlight as state turnaround deadlines loom

Acting Boston Public Schools Superintendent Drew Echelson.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

When Drew Echelson returned to Boston Public Schools last summer as deputy superintendent of academics, he landed a top job that perfectly suited his skill set.

As then-Superintendent Brenda Cassellius absorbed the public spotlight, Echelson could quietly toil away in the background, orchestrating much-needed academic and organizational overhauls across the beleaguered district.

Thirteen months later, the attention-averse administrator is no longer afforded that level of anonymity.

Echelson is now front and center as the acting superintendent of BPS, charged with temporarily leading the district through a grueling state intervention plan and preparations for welcoming back 48,000-plus students early next month. He’s expected to hold the job through late September, bridging the three-month span between Cassellius’ departure and the formal arrival of Somerville Superintendent Mary Skipper as the district’s next leader.

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It’s a delicate position for which colleagues and city leaders say Echelson is well suited. Although he doesn’t relish the outward-facing aspects of the role, Echelson’s even-keeled demeanor and deep knowledge of the position — he’s in his third stint with BPS and previously served as a Boston-area superintendent — made him a natural choice for guiding BPS through the transition.

“I’m someone who prefers to roll up my sleeves and do hard work,” Echelson, 45, said in a recent interview. “I don’t need to be noticed or acknowledged for things.”

Drew Echelson is now front and center as the acting superintendent of BPS, charged with temporarily leading BPS through a grueling state intervention plan and preparations for welcoming back 45,000-plus students early next month.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The BPS community and state officials, however, have their eyes trained on Echelson and Skipper, who have known each other for nearly 20 years.

BPS is staring down an Aug. 15 deadline for meeting the first requirements of a district improvement plan mandated by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which issued a blistering review in May outlining intractable issues within the district. While the initial 10 mandates largely involve straightforward tasks — writing plans for improving special education services, launching a transportation system review, commissioning a safety audit, to name a few — the work will lay the foundation for implementing long-term changes in BPS.

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State leaders and BPS families also will be closely watching the beginning of the school year, evaluating whether the district has remedied chronic transportation problems, such as no-show buses and late student pickups and drop-offs.

Through it all, Echelson and Skipper will contend with a community leery about yet another leadership swap, the district’s third in the past eight years. The transition is complicated by Skipper’s decision to remain as Somerville’s superintendent well into September, splitting her time between the two districts.

Echelson said his daily contact with Skipper begins with a post-workout 6:30 a.m. call, continues throughout the day, and ends with an evening debrief. Skipper also has made a few public appearances in her BPS superintendent capacity, most recently following the MBTA’s decision to shut down the Orange Line for the first three weeks of school. However, Skipper has not been present full time in BPS since her selection as superintendent in late June.

“You can’t build trust with your community, with your students and families, when you’re not out in front and engaging with us as a school leader,” said Roxann Harvey, chair of the BPS Special Education Parents Advisory Council. “We’re already at a space where there’s distrust based on history and a lot of the things that come with leaders changing.”

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While the West Roxbury resident isn’t particularly well known within city political circles, he’s been a fixture of the Boston education scene for two decades.

A native of Hartford and first-generation college graduate from the University of Connecticut, Echelson arrived in Boston in the late 1990s via the education nonprofit City Year. He aspired to become a civil rights lawyer, but his experience working at an afterschool program in Roxbury inspired him to obtain a teaching certificate.

Echelson spent five years teaching in Hartford, ultimately deciding that school leadership better fit his appetite for systemwide change. He returned to Boston for a two-year stint as an assistant principal at the Richard J. Murphy K-8 School in Dorchester, spent three years as a principal in Milton Public Schools, then followed a mentor to administrative roles in Seattle and Detroit.

Echelson meandered back to BPS for a 2½-year term as a network superintendent, overseeing 16 schools in Dorchester and Mattapan. The experience left Echelson frustrated that some schools receive more resources and better teachers than others — though he earned plaudits for turnaround efforts at the Mildred Avenue K-8 School, ranked as one of the state’s lowest-performing campuses at the time.

Waltham Public Schools tapped Echelson for the district’s superintendent position in 2015, and he held the job for four years. Margy Donnelly, a 28-year veteran of Waltham’s School Committee, said Echelson “walked on water” during his tenure, save for a smattering of routine parent complaints lobbed against superintendents.

“He had this ease about him,” Donnelly said. “He’s not the old-fashioned kind of boss. He’s very inclusive about his staff, about the school community. He’ll take anybody’s opinion and mull it over and have a discussion with you.”

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Echelson then jumped to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, where he served as a lecturer and director of a program training future education leaders. Although he never worked with Cassellius, they had a mutual respect by reputation. He rejected her initial entreaties to reprise a role in BPS, citing professional commitments, but acquiesced in mid-2021.

An eventful first year included continued academic fallout from the pandemic, lengthy contract negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union, the threat of severe state intervention, and Cassellius’ departure.

School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson said Echelson’s leadership track record and knowledge of district issues made him the ideal selection as acting superintendent. Boston Teachers Union President Jessica Tang, who engaged in contract talks with Echelson, added that he “just made sense” given his involvement on numerous pressing matters in BPS. In a statement, Skipper called the district “extremely lucky” to have Echelson at the helm. She declined an interview request.

Just over a month into his tenure, Echelson said he’s confident BPS is on course to meet the Aug. 15 deadline. Seven teams of BPS administrators working on the mandates began meetings in late July with DESE officials, conversations Echelson described as “productive and collaborative.”

He added that BPS should meet its internal bus driver hiring targets ahead of the district’s start date early next month, alleviating some of its transportation woes.

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From there, Echelson aims to put Skipper and BPS in position to quickly execute on the district’s sprawling plans — a feat that has too often eluded its recent leaders.

“We have to confront, eyes wide open, the real systemic issues that DESE has identified in the report and that we know about as a system,” Echelson said. “We can no longer pretend those things don’t exist, and we have to tackle them in real time.”