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Skipper kicks off first day as new Boston education leader

New Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper greeted students at the Trotter Elementary School Monday.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Faced with the daunting task of turning around the Boston Public Schools, Mary Skipper on Monday launched her tenure as the district’s new superintendent with smiles and an air of confidence.

She greeted students arriving at the William Monroe Trotter Elementary School with high fives, fist bumps, and hugs, before addressing the press about her outlook on the district’s future and the ability to carry out a state-mandated district improvement plan.

Before Skipper was named to the post in late June, the state and city reached an agreement to improve the schools, a plan that avoided a total takeover by the state but required the district to address longstanding problems. Under a stringent deadline, the state is demanding Skipper hit various benchmarks, including improving services to special education students and those learning English, tasks she said she up for.

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“I feel well prepared, having reviewed it and working with the team as we’ve met those initial benchmarks, and we will meet the rest,” Skipper said Monday. “But again, our goal is to exceed.”

Even before taking the helm, Skipper for months had been doing double duty, splitting her time overseeing Somerville schools and preparing that district for her exit, while simultaneously being read into BPS affairs.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper on Monday kicked off her official first day on the job at Trotter Elementary School.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

“It’s an exciting day, but it doesn’t necessarily feel like a first day because Mary and I have been on the phone already early in the morning, late at night,” Mayor Michelle Wu said Monday at the school. Skipper already has “been in the weeds of getting the school year up and running and all of the very small issues that add up to how families and students are experiencing the opportunities in BPS.

“We have a lot of work to do, but I can’t imagine a better partner to put all the pieces in place,” Wu said.

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Since the state agreement was made, the district already has reported a new system for addressing complaints from families; assessed the conditions of bathrooms and set initial priorities; laid out plans to better serve multilingual learners and students with disabilities; and solicited bids from experts who will review and recommend fixes to student safety, special education, and transportation.

Some of the tasks are meant to address troubling trends found in a state review, including that Black and Latino special education students are more likely to be placed in substantially separate classrooms away from their general education peers. By Nov. 1, the state plan is calling on the district to devise and put into place an “inclusion” policy aimed at improving options for students with disabilities, particularly providing ways for students with special needs to learn in a general classroom environment alongside their typical learning peers.

“I’ve said from the start that this is an opportunity for us as a city to come together around the Boston Public Schools in a way that has existed in the past, and when it did, we were an amazing district,” Skipper said. “I feel like we have the opportunity to become better, and better, and better, ensuring that it’s the village . . . everybody coming to the table to support.”

Will Austin, chief executive of the Boston Schools Fund, an organization that raises money to improve performance at Boston’s schools, said the improvement plan makes clear the state wants the new leader to develop a strong academic program to move the district forward — and now it’s up to Skipper to follow through.

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“What we have is someone that has a deep knowledge of Boston, both as a city as a district, and really deeply understands teaching and learning, and that’s the superintendent we need right now,” Austin said.

Facing pressure from the state and addressing educational disparities at a districtwide level isn’t new to Skipper.

During a public event in June, Skipper said when she joined Somerville, the district was being monitored by the state for racial disparities in special education. The district also had high dropout rates, which she said on Monday she sees as the “adults failing the students.” Dropout rates in Somerville fell dramatically after she took charge.

After examining school records to see what was missing, the district made changes to address unmet needs. The approach echoes the model she used at TechBoston, where educators studied students’ individual records to create schedules and teacher assignments for their specific needs.

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper (right), talked with Trotter Elementary School principal Sarita Thomas.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

On Monday, she said having that level of accountability is what she’s upheld along every step of her career, and will continue to bring throughout her time in Boston. Skipper added the district already has identified students who dropped out and are working to bring them back, determining what additional supports they can provide to them.

“I am happy to say that our team is already on it,” Skipper said.

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Adria Watson can be reached at adria.watson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @adriarwatson.