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Yvonne Abraham

Help wanted for Boston’s public schools

What kind of person would be your ideal superintendent?

I put that question to eight hotshot educators last week — principals and others who have turned struggling schools into stellar ones. They know how to solve the problems that have bedeviled schools for decades. Who better to name qualities they’d like to see in the person who might bring their brand of success to the entire system? Here’s what they think the search committee should be looking for.

Someone like John McDonough. Let’s just get this one out of the way. A lot of people in this city are crushing on the interim superintendent. They love his quiet way of getting big things done — like his use of a provision in the teacher’s contract to give every principal greater hiring freedom. And they especially love his humility: McDonough knows he doesn’t have all the answers, and he isn’t afraid to empower people who know more than he does. “I’ve been to so many meetings with [him],” says Naia Wilson, headmaster of New Mission High in Hyde Park. “My voice is heard.”

For Mary Skipper, the former TechBoston Academy director who now oversees the city’s high schools, the next superintendent would think of himself or herself as, “not being in charge of, but being with, a partner in the work with parents, teachers, students, and principals.”


Someone who’ll give them room. Every successful educator will tell you it’s all about autonomy, not just in hiring, but in designing curricula, forming community partnerships, and deciding how to meet the strong standards vital to a great education. Educators want more power and resources shifted from Court Street to the school level. “You can’t in my opinion mandate centrally . . . ‘Everybody is going to do x.’ You have to say, ‘Everybody has to achieve this standard, how are you going to go about it?’ ” says Andrew Bott, principal at Orchard Gardens in Roxbury.


A toughie. With autonomy comes more accountability. State law mandates that the state’s worst-performing Level 4 schools and charters be monitored closely. If they’re not up to snuff, charters are shut down, and Level 4 schools face state takeover. Other schools, and the principals who lead them, should face scrutiny as tough. “If you’re not serving our kids then you [should face closure],” says Ethan d’Ablemont Burnes, who heads the Manning in Jamaica Plain. “I want a superintendent who will say that.”

A peacemaker. Right now, we’ve got this icky us-and-them thing going on when it comes to district schools and charters. They’re all public schools. They all educate city kids. The next superintendent has to find a way to get us beyond this increasingly hostile divide. “It’s this false dichotomy between charters and district schools,” Bott says. “It’s really about getting kids great schools. Whoever is doing that most effectively will have . . . kids choosing them.”

A rock. As Carol Johnson’s tenure shows, things can get pretty hairy around here. Educators want someone who can come up with a clear vision, and stand up for it, even under the withering public glare. It’s possible, for example, that the new Common Core standards will mean lower test scores at first. That will bring some heat.

“They have to have confidence in the course we’re charting, not go off in a different direction if scores are dipping,” says Mary Driscoll, principal at the Edison K-8 School, in Brighton. “They have to be willing to deflect the heat . . . but also hold schools accountable.”


A stayer. Fixing schools is hard, and it takes a long time. We’ve been lucky that superintendents in Boston have stuck around longer than those in many other urban districts. We need another long-haul schools chief. “I want somebody who approaches this as a calling, and can make a five- or seven-year commitment,” says Skipper, “somebody willing to stay in the trenches and make sure it works in our city.’’

None of the hotshots thinks it matters much if that person is a man or a woman, a person of color or white. It is important that the new superintendent understand the city’s greatness and craziness, but he or she need not be from here.

So there you have it, search committee. That’s the person you’re looking for.

Piece of cake, right?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com