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BPS superintendent finalists stress desire to expand opportunities for city students

The three finalists for Boston schools superintendent pitched themselves Wednesday as leaders who will push to expand opportunities for all city students, hours after officials formally revealed their names as the best candidates for the top job.

Two of the finalists — Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Oscar Santos, president of Cathedral High School — shared pieces of their personal journeys growing up as the children of immigrants and described how those experiences have driven their work. The third finalist, Brenda Cassellius, former state education commissioner in Minnesota, stressed collaboration.

The School Committee will likely vote on a new superintendent the week of April 29, following public interviews next week. Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who appoints the seven-member board, carries considerable sway over the decision.

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In an interview, Santos said he was raised by a single mother who emigrated from the Dominican Republic. He lived in public housing and attended the Boston Public Schools, where he graduated from Boston Latin School. He returned to Boston schools in 1996 as a teacher at English High School working with immigrant students. He later became principal of Boston International High School and then served three years as Randolph schools superintendent. He said he’s confident he is the right person to lead the system.

“It’s a difficult job and an important job,” he said. “I grew up in Boston. I not only know the geography of the city, but I know the feeling of the city. I understand the scars of Boston busing. I understand the challenges and the inequities that have existed. I know it because I have lived it. It’s not something I have read in a book.

“The bottom line is there needs to be more great schools for all our kids. We need to support students where they are and give them opportunities to succeed. They need to know people care about them. But there also needs to be strong curriculums and high expectations.”

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The two other finalists responded via statements.

“As a child of working-class immigrants and an English learner myself, I am steadfast in my commitment to expanding educational opportunities for all students,” said Izquierdo, who holds a cabinet-level position in Miami-Dade, the nation’s fourth largest school system, overseeing all aspects of teaching and learning. “I am honored to be considered for this position in Boston, where I would work tirelessly to expand supportive environments in every school, placing equity, opportunity, and innovation at the forefront of our values and actions.”

Cassellius said, “Every student in every school deserves an excellent and equitable education.

“My entire career from special education paraprofessional to state commissioner has been devoted to an unrelenting advocacy for all students so they can reach their full potential,” she said. “To have the opportunity to bring my experience as an education leader, policy-maker and advocate to a district as diverse as Boston would be a dream come true.”

Cassellius stepped down as Minnesota’s education commissioner in January after eight years on the job amid changes in governors. She recently withdrew as a finalist for a school district superintendent’s job in Minnesota but is still a finalist for state superintendent in Michigan.

Paul Reville, a former state education secretary in Massachusetts, said the slate of finalists revealed on Wednesday is stronger than the batch of finalists Boston fielded the last time it hunted for a top leader four years ago.

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But he said he was disappointed that none of the finalists was a current or former superintendent of a large urban system. Many educators and political leaders believe it’s difficult for a novice to navigate the complex political structures of the city.

“It’s still not an ‘A’ pool because of the absence of a sitting or former big city superintendent,” Reville said, but he added, “It’s a list with promise.”

Michael Contompasis, a former Boston superintendent, said he was impressed with all three finalists, especially Santos. Contompasis, as headmaster of Boston Latin, first got to know Santos when he was a student there and later, as the system’s chief operating officer, had a hand in promoting Santos to headmaster of Boston International High School.

“He really put that school on the map,” Contompasis said. “He didn’t fail us at all. We recognized his talent, ability, commitment, and passion for the work.”

Those who know the other two finalists applauded their work.

Denise Specht, president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union, said she enjoyed working with Cassellius.

“She was very supportive of teachers and willing to work with teachers, and she had students at the center of her decision-making,” she said. She credited Cassellius for creating regional teacher training centers so educators didn’t have to travel to St. Paul and for helping to push through statewide full-day kindergarten.

She said Cassellius is a politically skilled leader, noting she served as commissioner for Mark Dayton’s entire eight years as governor.

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Mike Magee, chief executive officer for Chiefs for Change, a nonprofit for urban superintendents and state education commissioners, said Izquierdo is a rising star and is part of the organization’s future leadership development program. He said she has been instrumental in redesigning high schools and middle schools in Miami-Dade and expanding partnerships with universities, helping to transform the system into one of the highest performing urban systems in the nation.

“Marie has been on our radar for quite some time,” Magee said. “Miami’s outcomes are very impressive and somewhat of an outlier. She strikes me as the kind of leader who will be transformational. . . . I find her joyful, collaborative, and always focused on kids.”

Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said she hopes the School Committee and mayor can create the right conditions for the next superintendent to succeed.

“We can have the best candidates and person for the job, but if we don’t have environment for the person to be successful, all of this will be for naught,” she said. “It’s important for the mayor to be supportive of the individual and allow the individual to do the job based on his or her experience as an educational and operational leader. It’s important we don’t create a structure where there is a shadow superintendent at City Hall.”

The prevailing candidate will replace Tommy Chang, who resigned last June.

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Mary Battenfeld, a member of the grass-roots parent group Quest, questioned whether the public interviews would be just for show, noting the mayor wields considerable influence.

“How much will the direct voices of parents and stakeholders influence the School Committee’s decision?” asked Battenfeld, who has a son at Boston Arts Academy.


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