As Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang leaves office, his successor will be left with a massive to-do list. It includes everything from overhauling high school academics and rethinking school start times to shuttering underused school buildings and expanding access to the city’s premier exam school — to name just a few daunting challenges.
Some projects are in the early stages, some have suffered false starts, and some have been long-promised but never delivered.
The list is so long that many observers say it would be wise for a future leader to pick a few items to drill down on. But it is unlikely that even the most skillful leader will be able to build full consensus, given Boston’s many competing interest groups.
Gaining the approval of one neighborhood can anger another. Helping one school or one group or one politician can be seen as hurting others. And any such friction is likely to try the patience of the mayor, who has to look out for the entire city — and doesn’t want to alienate key constituencies he needs for reelection.
The school committee this week approved Laura Perille, president and chief executive of Boston-based EdVestors, to be interim superintendent while a search is conducted for a permanent schools chief.
The following is a list of big initiatives that will likely factor into the decision-making of Walsh and the School Committee as they ponder new leadership.
1. Finish teacher contract negotiations. The current contract expires on Aug. 31, and getting a new deal in place should be a top priority for the interim superintendent. Yet negotiations have barely begun. Given that contract talks can drag on for more than two years and frequently get contentious, it remains unclear whether an interim leader will be able to get the job done.
2. Develop a districtwide school construction plan. Walsh and Chang appeared to be moving forward, holding community forums and hiring a consulting firm to assess the conditions of each of the city’s 125 schools. But more than a year after the consultants finished their report, a plan on how to address the deficiencies of each building doesn’t appear forthcoming. Meanwhile, most Boston charter schools have recently finished a building project, have one underway, or will be embarking on one soon, potentially luring families away from BPS.
3. Address excess school capacity. Many middle schools and high schools are serving hundreds fewer students than they did a decade ago, raising concerns that the district is stretching dollars too thin by keeping all its schools open. Debate persists, though, about how much excess capacity truly exists in these buildings. Many school leaders say they are putting their buildings to good use by expanding programs for off-track students, while also bringing in outside partners. Many parents and teachers stand ready to fight any proposal to shutter schools.
4. Adjust school start times. Chang proposed changing the start and end times at about 85 percent of schools, many by more than two hours, prompting angry protests. Chang ultimately pulled the proposal and promised to include more input from individual schools, but was still under pressure to make changes. Realigning start times could save the system millions of dollars in busing costs, while pushing the start of high school to a later hour could help students get more sleep and do better in class.
5. Increase diversity at Boston Latin School. Just 21 percent of the 2,500 students at Boston Latin School identify as black or Latino, far below the school system’s average and those at the city’s other two exam schools. The school system has taken steps to help boost enrollment of these student groups by expanding rigorous academic classes in the lower grades at some schools and expanding access to summer boot camps, but some advocacy organizations contend that the school system needs to overhaul the admission requirements for all its exam schools to increase diversity, a potentially volatile issue.
6. Overhaul high schools. A scathing report this spring found that nearly 20 percent of Boston high school students are behind academically by two or more years. The report raised serious questions about whether the school system has been moving with enough urgency to overhaul its high schools. The report came three years after the mayor launched a much-hyped effort to redesign the city’s high schools. Yet a comprehensive plan to fix high schools never materialized. The report also stressed the need for the school system to improve the academic quality of its lower schools so students arrive in high school better prepared.
7. Change grade configurations. Chang was pushing to streamline the mix of schools so most would serve kindergarten through Grade 6 or grades 7 through 12. But such a change would require buy-in among families, who might be apprehensive about sending their seventh- and eighth-graders to high schools that already are failing too many students.
8. Reevaluate distribution of funding to individual schools. The school system doles out money for individual schools on a per-student basis. The approach is supposed to ensure equity, but it also causes instability in school budgets year to year as a slight decrease in enrollment can jeopardize teaching positions and programs. Some schools can make up the gap with fund-raising, while the others must cut.
9. Universal pre-k. Walsh has repeatedly called for “universal pre-kindergarten.” With many elementary schools short on space and finances running tight, a new superintendent will need to think creatively.