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New Boston schools chief lays out priorities

Chang says he wants to expand pre-K classes

(Stuart Palley for The Boston Glo)

LOS ANGELES — Tommy Chang, in his first sit-down interview since being chosen to lead Boston’s schools, provided what might be a preview of his plans, saying he supports expanding pre-kindergarten classes, providing mainstream education for students with disabilities, and overhauling troubled high schools.

Chang also signaled he is not big on top-down mandates, noting that the makeup and academic needs can vary tremendously school to school. Instead, he talked enthusiastically about giving schools more freedom in making decisions on staffing, curriculum, and spending — and said the School Department should play a supportive role.

“It’s not about ensuring every school teaches the same thing at the same time. There is no perfect curriculum. Context matters,” Chang said Friday in an interview with the Globe. “The work has to be owned by the school community,” he said.

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Boston’s newly selected school superintendent also announced that he will hold a listening tour of the city in the coming months, to learn firsthand the concerns of families, educators, and leaders.

Contract negotiations are underway, and the 39-year-old Chang is expected to be on the job by July 1. The Boston School Committee, in a 5-2 vote, selected him for the top job Tuesday night from a slate of three finalists.

Tommy Chang said he supports giving schools more freedom.
Tommy Chang said he supports giving schools more freedom.(Stuart Palley for The Boston Globe)

Chang, a one-time charter school principal, will face a number of challenges in Boston: wide gaps of achievement among students of different backgrounds, dozens of low-achieving schools, deteriorating facilities, and operating costs that have been rising faster than revenues.

Those tasks loom large for someone who has never served as a superintendent. But Chang has gained a reputation while working in the nation’s second-largest school system for his collaborative approach and for a strong conviction that schools should have the flexibility to experiment.

He has spent the past three years trying out his approach to education as an area instructional superintendent at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Intensive Support and Innovation Center, which he developed and where he oversees more than 130 schools.

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The walls of his tidy office on the 11th floor of a high rise are mostly barren. There’s a pennant from his alma matter, the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned a bachelor of arts in religious studies. (His most recent degree, a doctorate in education, is from Loyola Marymount University.)

There are also pictures of him touring East Coast colleges with students from a charter high school he founded in Venice, Calif., and with his wife and his 11-year-old daughter, who attends a charter school near their home.

Chang, who emigrated from Taiwan as a youngster and grew up in LA, is a huge sports fan, rooting for the Lakers and the Dodgers (a detail he jokingly suggested not putting in this story). He takes his daughter to about 20 baseball games a year.

“We eat our Dodger Dogs, and sometimes I have my laptop out, and people are like, ‘Why are you on your laptop?’ ” he said.

Chang, who oversees more than 100 staffers at the innovation center, keeps a busy schedule. By 7:45 a.m. each day, he has checked in with his senior staff and knows what schools they will be in that day and what they will be focused on.

“Then I spend my day helping to support my team,” which can include going to schools, he said during the Globe interview, which began in his downtown Los Angeles office and continued during a trip in a district-issued Ford Taurus to a school undergoing a turnaround.

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The innovation center works with both traditional and pilot schools, which LA created eight years ago, inspired by Boston’s work. Pilot schools run with greater operating autonomy than traditional schools.

The center also has fostered partnership with outside organizations to help run some schools — a tactic Boston has used, leading to criticism among some Boston parents and teachers that the district is trying to “privatize” its public schools.

The selection of Chang as superintendent has only heightened concerns among some parents and teachers that Boston might turn over more of its schools to charter-school operators and other outside organizations.

Chang said he is open to developing more partnerships, not only with charter schools but also universities and other organizations.

“I believe parents want high-quality schools close to home,” Chang said. “As the leader of BPS, I’m committed to making BPS schools high-quality schools, and that may call for more collaboration.”

Chang — who lists Spanish, Mandarin, and Taiwanese as the languages he can speak — said he was struck by the high level of engagement among Boston parents, teachers, students, nonprofits, and other organizations and is eager to partner with them.

Chang was principal for several years at Animo Venice Charter High School, whose 2009 graduation is seen here.
Chang was principal for several years at Animo Venice Charter High School, whose 2009 graduation is seen here.(Handout)

He said some of his proudest work in LA has been with parents. To make that point, Chang took a reporter and photographer Friday afternoon to the 24th Street Elementary School, located in a low-income area with many Spanish-speaking families.

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The school shares a campus with a middle school, a special education center, a recently reopened early childhood program, and a community garden.

Inside the elementary school’s library, three mothers shared their stories of how they fought and held protests to demand changes to the poor education their children were receiving but said nothing got done until they found their way to Chang.

The mothers, speaking through an interpreter, said they were not happy when they learned on social media that Chang is heading to Boston.

“We are not going to let him leave us,” said Amabilia Villeda, one of the mothers.

Mary Ann Sullivan, the school’s principal, said Chang would be incredibly missed.

“He’s a visionary,” Sullivan said. “He’s always trying to empower principals to make decisions that are in the best interest of kids.”

For Chang, the transition to Boston has already begun. He put up a new background photo on his Twitter account last week featuring Lakers great Magic Johnson wearing a Celtics shirt during Larry Bird’s jersey-retirement ceremony more than two decades ago.

And he is figuring out when he can get back to Boston again. He says he wants to spend time with interim Superintendent John McDonough to ensure a smooth leadership transfer and is very much looking forward to working with Mayor Martin J. Walsh.

“This is a job I always wanted,” Chang said. “It’s a deep honor to be considered first and now selected. We will do good things in Boston together.”

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