The job of Boston school superintendent has long been daunting, particularly for outsiders new to its internal politics and public pressure.
So perhaps Tommy Chang had some idea what he was getting himself into when he moved to Boston from Los Angeles last summer. Still, there are things one must experience to fully appreciate. Being in the center of a roiling racial controversy at Boston Latin School, the nation’s oldest public school, and one of its most prestigious, is one of those.
“My honeymoon lasted five months,” Chang said Friday night, sitting in the school department’s nearly-empty headquarters. “Then: Boom! It’s been an article every day. It’s incredible.”
In January, two students went public to denounce racism at BLS. In a separate incident, a student was called a racial slur by a classmate, who held an electrical cord and said he should use it to lynch her. In response, activists have denounced the school’s administration for doing too little to ensure a safe environment for all students, and the Boston branch of the NAACP called for the removal of the school’s headmaster, Lynne Mooney Teta. US Attorney Carmen Ortiz has also launched an investigation of the school.
Chang is a staunch defender of Teta, and sees no reason to remove her. He also maintained that the issues at Boston Latin reflect a lack of inclusion that he had hoped to tackle at some point in his tenure. The schedule for that reckoning has been moved up.
“It’s a compelling story and I think it can be a very simplified story if you want to make it one,” he said. “But it’s a deep story. It’s not just a story about these incidents. It’s about a school that does not reflect the diversity of the rest of the city. It’s a school that rests on an island separate from the rest of the city. All of that is playing out at the school.”
From the day Chang took the job he was concerned about the inherent elitism of Boston Latin, a school that bears almost no resemblance, educationally or socially, to the rest of the system in which it resides. He credited Teta, an alumna who has run the school for nine years, with leading the move to a less cutthroat, more supportive environment.
“My sense is a little bit less attention has been placed on the issue of race, identity, what you bring to the table as a person of color, or as a person of alternative sexual orientation,” Chang said. “That hasn’t been as embraced. And you see it play out from an adult to student level, student to student, and probably from adult to adult.”
The school is planning dialogues on race, involving students, faculty, and staff. Also, the Boston Latin School Association has promised to pour money into a tutoring program for Boston Public School students to prepare them for the school’s entrance exam. Chang also wants to expand advanced classes in elementary schools, though that initiative is on hold as the system addresses an estimated $50 million shortfall.
I asked Chang how deeply Mayor Martin Walsh has been involved in the school system’s issues, amid rumblings that the mayor is sometimes too hands-on. “He knows I’m new to the city and he wants to be my coach in the city,” Chang said. “We communicate constantly. I think the mayor is deeply passionate about wanting to see the school system change. My job is to give him guidance and say, ‘This is my turf, and let me take care of these things.’ I think he understands where his guardrails need to be.”
Last week, more than 1,000 students walked out of classrooms and rallied on Boston Common in protest of planned budget cuts, some of which were rescinded. It was a reminder of the intensity that surrounds educational decisions here.
“I knew [being superintendent] was going to be political but until you do it you really have no sense,” Chang said. “It is actually my job to keep our work as depoliticized as possible so we can focus internally. We have to stay grounded in our values.”
Despite the recent controversy, Chang remains an irrepressible optimist. “I think this is just the beginning of some really long-term work in the system,” he said. “There’s a lot of opportunity. If we can’t do it here in Boston, we may not be able to do it anywhere.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described the status of a program that prepares students for the entrance examinaton for the city’s exam schools.