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A private consulting firm screening applicants for a new school superintendent in Boston is expected to recommend about eight candidates to interview this month, as the search for a new leader reaches a critical stage.

The interviews of the semifinalists will be conducted by a 12-member panel, which was appointed last year by Mayor Martin J. Walsh and the School Committee, and will take place in private sessions starting on Friday, Jan. 23, and extending into the weekend. The semifinalists are being pulled from a pool of 75 applicants.

Follow-up interviews are scheduled to take place the following weekend, with a goal of publicly recommending and identifying up to three finalists to the School Committee in early February. The winning candidate, who will be chosen by the School Committee in consultation with Walsh, is expected to be named in February.

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“There’s strong national interest in this position,” said Michael O’Neill, chairman of the Boston School Committee, noting that interested candidates hail from 25 states.

The school system has been on the hunt for a new superintendent since April 2013, when Carol R. Johnson announced she would step down after six years at the helm. John McDonough, the school system’s former chief financial officer, has been serving as interim superintendent.

The search has encountered notable delays. First, the mayoral race in 2013 prompted the School Committee to put the search on hold out of a belief that the most desirable candidates would be reluctant to express interest in the job without knowing the educational priorities of the new mayor. Once Walsh was elected, he and the School Committee resumed the search early last year with the hope of having a new superintendent in place by September. But the mayor and the search committee, facing criticism from a wide range of community groups who said the process was being rushed, decided to delay the search again in May to ensure they could attract the best candidates.

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Hiring a superintendent in the winter is considered the most optimal time, specialists have said. At that point, candidates who are serving as superintendents elsewhere have moved beyond the bustle of new school year activities in the fall, allowing them to consider future employment options.

The candidates are being recruited and initially vetted by the firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates, based in Illinois.

“We really need someone who will take the system to the next level,” said Kim Janey, senior project director for Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston-based education advocacy organization. “Too many of our students are not making the mark.”

Walsh commended the search committee for getting the process to this stage.

“Our focus is on accelerating the improvement of our schools by investing in every young person,” Walsh said in a statement. “We are setting a foundation of real reform, from pre-kindergarten to high school and beyond, which will position this person to be America’s next great superintendent.”

Big challenges loom for the new superintendent. He or she will oversee adding 40 extra minutes each day at more than 50 schools over the next three years, an initiative announced Dec. 26 by Walsh, school leaders, and union officials.

The prevailing candidate also will monitor the rollout of sweeping changes to the way the school system assigns students to schools, enact a plan to address the system’s aging school buildings, and try to reduce persistent gaps in achievement among students of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

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The School Committee and the mayor will be under pressure from many parents, community groups, and students to name a superintendent who is black or Latino, in recognition that 80 percent of the school system’s 57,000 students identify themselves one of those ways.

Last week, the search firm interviewed 15 candidates it “felt warranted more in-depth review,” according to a memo provided to the Globe Friday. Six of the candidates were African-American, five were Latino, one was Asian, and three were white. Six of the candidates were women.

Only one candidate has been publicly revealed: Matthew Malone, the outgoing secretary of education in Massachusetts. The Globe reported his candidacy last year because he was required to fill out a state conflict of interest disclosure form — a public document — after he expressed interest in the Boston job when contacted by the search firm.

The public will have one more opportunity to weigh in on what characteristics and experiences a new school superintendent should have before the search committee begins its interviews. A community forum is scheduled for Monday at 5:30 p.m. at the Lilla Frederick Pilot Middle School in Dorchester.

“It’s sort of a balance of finding a visionary and a really capable administrator,” said Megan Wolf, a member of Quality for Every Student, a grass-roots parent organization in Boston. “I think the Boston public schools still faces challenges in leadership up and down the department.”

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James Vaznis can be reached at jvaznis@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.