Growing up, Mary Skipper’s mother instilled in her the belief that education was the best chance for her to grow not only as a person, but also as a professional.
The teachers who gave up their time and their lives to invest in Skipper are what lead her down the path to become an educator, and that same influence is what she hopes to bring to Boston as the school district’s new superintendent.
“I want to inspire our students, for them to feel that the schools they attend, that the teachers they have, the principals they have, the paraprofessionals, the guidance or the social worker that they know, that that is a person that speaks of hope and models, and as an inspiration to them,” Skipper told the Globe’s Melissa Barragán Taboada during their conversation Friday at the second annual Globe Summit.
Skipper, a former Boston Public Schools teacher and administrator, was selected as the next leader of Boston Public Schools in June, returning to the district after seven years leading Somerville Public Schools.
During a half-hour interview, Skipper talked about her vision for the district. She also spoke of the challenges she’ll face, such as building community trust, addressing transportation issues, and implementing a critical state improvement plan.
As Skipper winds down her tenure in Somerville and prepares to take on her new role in Boston starting Sept. 26, she said she’s been using the transition time to learn about the Boston school district since she left seven years ago.
She’s been trying to understand people’s perspectives and experiences about what’s working in the district, as well as the priorities of the community so that she can “hit the ground running in a way that I can start working with people I have had relationships with from my past work in BPS, and all of the new people that have joined the BPS community,” she said.
One challenge will be earning the confidence of those who criticized the search process for the lack of diversity in the finalists. She replaces Brenda Cassellius, who resigned in June after three years on the job.
In the days leading up to the final vote for Boston’s next superintendent, civil rights leaders and education advocates called on district leaders to halt the vote or extend the process after the search committee presented only two finalists.
Skipper said that she hears those concerns, and is committed to building a diverse team “that needs to represent the various community parts of Boston.”
“I also have a commitment to empowering voices, to raising voices up, and that’s through family engagement,” she said. “But that is also through decision making, and empowering the different parts of our community . . . particularly our Black and brown voices, special education voices, our parents of our multilingual learners, so that their voices are at the table with decision making.”
Another challenge is the state-mandated plan for improving BPS — an agreement that held off the threat of a total state takeover — which was finalized by Mayor Michelle Wu, state Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley, and top BPS leaders two days before Skipper was selected as the district’s next leader.
Skipper said the improvement plan is a starting point and that BPS intends to “improve and exceed greater than what’s laid out.”
“I think there’s been a lot of good work done so far,” Skipper said. “I think Drew Echelson as acting [superintendent] and the team, they’ve laid out quite a bit over the summer and we’ll continue that into the fall.”
She added that although she thinks transportation is an area where BPS has seen improvement with the percentage of school buses running on time, it is going to be a “commitment to continuous improvement” to maintain progress.
Additionally, developing community and family engagement is a key goal, which she described as the whole child and it being ”academic, social- emotional, and physical.”
Developing community and family engagement, strengthening access to social-emotional learning, accelerating academic performance, and ensuring student safety are some of her key priorities heading into her new role.
But Skipper acknowledged that that when it comes to tackling student outcomes and learning gaps, schools can’t go back to how things were before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think, going forward, the whole child and the mission of the whole child is not something that’s going to go away,” Skipper said. “It’s something that came to the forefront during the pandemic. We need to make sure that we have the resources set up to support children in that way.”