Boston school officials tapped an alumna and former teacher at Boston Latin School to be its new headmaster on Thursday, making her the first person of color to lead the nation’s oldest school a year after it was roiled by allegations of racial discrimination.
Rachel Skerritt, 39, will replace Lynne Mooney Teta, who stepped down from the post last June after several students accused her and other administrators of mishandling complaints of racial discrimination at the prestigious exam school. The complaints sparked school department and federal investigations and schoolwide conversations about race.
Skerritt, currently deputy chief of leadership development for the District of Columbia Public Schools, said the opportunity to lead a school that provided the groundwork for her success as an adult was too good to pass up. She will become the third woman to head the 382-year-old school.
“You can’t help but be interested
in such a unique opportunity,” said Skerritt, acknowledging that a lot of people she knew encouraged her to seek out the job. “My role as headmaster will be to listen, bring folks together, and collaborate.”
Skerritt, who grew up in Grove Hall, had been an early favorite for the job. She earned tremendous respect as a hard-working teacher and administrator during her 11 years in the Boston school system before departing for Washington, D.C., where she orchestrated the turnaround of the troubled Eastern Senior High School.
She maintained deep ties to Latin School after graduating in 1995. She served as a trustee of the Latin School Association for four years and has worked on a college readiness program. More recently, she joined the Black Alumni Advisory Council, which was formed last fall in response to the racial crisis.
“Rachel’s life and professional experiences are tailor-made to lead Boston Latin School into its next chapter of excellence and equity for all,” Superintendent Tommy Chang said in a statement. “She is a champion of providing rigor and opportunities for every single student in her care, and she is someone who will not compromise when it comes to the education of young people.”
Skerritt, who has a 3-month-old son, said she is still sorting out her exact start date.
Latin School, the crown jewel of the Boston school system, was thrust into the national spotlight in January 2016 after two students posted a YouTube video describing racial incidents at the school and inadequate responses from administrators.
School Department investigators later found administrators had mishandled several complaints about “bias-based conduct,” and federal investigators subsequently found a climate of racial discrimination and harassment and that staff failed to properly address student complaints
It was the biggest racial crisis to hit Latin School since the 1990s when at least two white families sued the school system after their children were denied admission under efforts to increase student diversity.
Civil rights leaders and organizations, including the Boston branch of the NAACP, were so incensed by last year’s allegations that they called for Teta’s removal. She eventually stepped down, even though she had strong support from many teachers, parents, and students.
Michael Curry, the immediate past president of Boston’s NAACP, said he was pleased with Skerritt’s selection, noting that her name repeatedly came up among students, parents, and city leaders when the group’s members discussed the search for a new leader for BLS.
“I personally reached out to Superintendent Chang and Mayor Walsh to express my appreciation that the nation’s oldest school is about to have its first African-American leader — that is something to celebrate,” Curry said. “What she brings to the job is unquestionable experience, a deep commitment to providing access to academic rigor and a quality education, and a connection to the struggles that many students have and will experience in the future.”
Teta, another Latin School alumna, also praised Skerritt’s selection.
“As an alumna, as well as an experienced educator dedicated to academic excellence and equity, she is perfectly positioned to be our next leader,” Teta said in a statement.
Since Teta’s departure, the school has been overseen by an administrative team led by a former headmaster, Michael Contompasis, who has been charged with helping the school foster greater racial harmony.
A screening committee of teachers, parents, and students reviewed dozens of resumes submitted to the School Department in response to a general job posting for all principal positions districtwide.
From there, Contompasis said the group interviewed about a half-dozen candidates this winter and Skerritt emerged as the clear favorite, garnering a unanimous recommendation that Chang ultimately endorsed.
Skerritt taught English for seven years in Boston, before entering a leadership training program that allowed her to intern at Another Course to College, a high school in Boston that she wound up leading for two years.
She then served for little more than a year as chief of staff for former superintendent Carol R. Johnson.
“It will be good to have her back,” said Mary Tamer, cochair of the Latin School Parent Council and a member of the screening committee. “There is such great comfort in her significant experience and knowledge of the school, which really matters a great deal not just to students and teachers, but the parents and alumni community as well.”
The naming of the new headmaster surprised students, many of whom found the announcement in their cellphone inboxes after school. Skerritt had just visited the school Monday for a meet-and-greet as part of the vetting process and stressed how she enjoyed building relationships with students.
For instance, during one meeting, she said she liked treating lunch duty as informal office hours for students and her goal is for all students to have a relationship with at least one adult in the building whom they can turn to when they need help.
“I think it’s pretty cool that she can sort of relate to us,” said Ivette Alvarez, a junior from East Boston.
Susan Moran, program director for the English department who worked with Skerritt when she taught there, said she has a strong effect on students.
“What struck me most about Rachel in the classroom was that she brought a tremendous amount of energy to the students, and they felt that,” she said.
Contompasis, who first met Skerritt when she arrived at Latin School as a seventh-grader when he was headmaster, said that she always showed promise. When he served as superintendent a decade ago, he gave Skerritt her first principal’s job, at Another Course to College.
“She gets it and knows what to do,” Contompasis said. “She’s hands on, thinks before she acts, and is collaborative.