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Huge challenges await Boston’s next schools chief

Candidates to serve as Boston’s next school superintendent include (from left) former Minnesota education commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Miami-Dade County Public Schools chief academic officer Marie Izquierdo, and Cathedral High School principal and former Randolph schools superintendent Oscar Santos.
Candidates to serve as Boston’s next school superintendent include (from left) former Minnesota education commissioner Brenda Cassellius, Miami-Dade County Public Schools chief academic officer Marie Izquierdo, and Cathedral High School principal and former Randolph schools superintendent Oscar Santos.

As the three finalists for Boston superintendent begin to make their case Monday to lead the nation’s oldest public school system, there are numerous big issues to watch out for.

The challenges facing the eventual winner are immense: deteriorating school buildings, declining enrollment, widely uneven school performance, persistent achievement gaps among students of different backgrounds, limited financial resources, graduates who struggle in college, students who don’t make it through high school, families who bail out of the system, schools at risk of state takeovers.

All of which raises a critical question:

What kind of superintendent does the 56,000-student system need to guide it through these thorny issues?

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A proven academic leader? A commanding chief executive? A take-no-prisoners education reformer? A passionate crusader for racial equality, no matter the political risk? Opinions vary widely.

The experiences and backgrounds of the finalists differ, as well. Marie Izquierdo holds a cabinet-level position, chief academic officer, in the Miami-Dade County Public Schools. Brenda Cassellius recently wrapped up eight years as Minnesota’s education commissioner. Oscar Santos is president of Cathedral High School in Boston and a former Randolph schools superintendent.

Here is a guide to some of the characteristics that may be on many Bostonians’ checklists:

■  Political skill: Boston’s complicated tapestry of neighborhood politics, racial inequality, and individual school communities can be tough for even a seasoned superintendent to navigate, making it difficult to build support for broad changes. There are various parent groups, passionate students, a powerful teachers union, veteran principals, elected officials, community organizers, civil rights activists, business leaders, philanthropists, and state education regulators, all with vested and often competing interests.

Looming large over all of them is Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who appoints the seven-member School Committee. Missteps or alienation could sink a superintendency.

Look for whether the finalists offer concrete examples of controversial proposals they successfully implemented or ones they had to abandon, how they did it, what they learned from those experiences, and how they tried to maintain relationships amid turmoil.

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■  A proven academic record: The core work for any superintendent is to support what is going on in the schools and classrooms, or when necessary to overhaul it. Much of this work takes place out of the public eye via teacher and administrator training, adoption of new curriculums and teaching techniques, beefed-up efforts to improve student attendance, and discipline practices.

What works in one school might not work in another, especially in a system of 125 schools with widely varied student demographics. Many schools tilt heavily black or Latino; a few are majority white. Some have unusually high populations of students with disabilities; others hardly any. Ditto for students with language barriers or those living in poverty. Adding further pressure: The state has identified more than four dozen schools in need of targeted or widespread changes due to sluggish MCAS scores, low graduation rates, or high rates of student absences.

Look for finalists to talk about their approaches to overseeing schools — what specific changes they have enacted and what kind of results were achieved. Do they seem compliance-driven or nurturing? Extra points if they explain it in plain language instead of in education jargon.

■  Commitment to equity: More than four decades after court-ordered school desegregation deeply divided the city, racial inequality continues to challenge the school system. Wide gaps in achievement between black and Latino students and their white and Asian peers persist. The same is true for high school graduation rates, college completion, and disciplinary actions.

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In a system where students of color make up 86 percent of the enrollment, the teaching force remains majority white. Schools in wealthier parts of the city are able raise tens of thousands of dollars to fill school budget gaps, while those in the poorest sections where student need is the greatest have to do without.

All the while, many parents, elected officials, and civil rights activists are at odds over whether the system should overhaul admissions requirements at its three exam schools. Only 20 percent of the 2,440 students at Boston Latin School, the system’s crown jewel, are black or Latino.

Look for whether the finalists point to specific steps they’ve taken to reduce achievement gaps, diversify teaching forces, distribute limited financial resources, and address other inequities. Do they take a cookie-cutter or a more nuanced approach to crafting potential solutions?

■  Construction, operations, and budget management: Let’s face it, this is the less glamorous side of being a superintendent, but in Boston it trips ups many superintendents.

Changing school start times created a citywide uproar in 2017, dooming then-Superintendent Tommy Chang. Late-running buses frustrate scores of parents annually — frequently rising to crisis level — but is difficult to remedy in a system of uneven school quality that prompts families to send their children beyond their own neighborhoods.

Spreading the system’s $1.1 billion budget among its schools on a per-pupil basis sparks protest every year from schools with declining enrollment.

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And in a system that has built few schools since the 1970s, buildings are deteriorating, while shrinking enrollment has left some schools with half the student populations they once had, sparking a few closures in recent years and fears that more will follow.

Walsh has developed a 10-year facilities plan that aims to remedy some of these problems, It calls for constructing or extensively renovating a dozen schools, doing away with middle schools, and adding the seventh and eighth grades to high schools.

Be careful not to judge too harshly. Given that none of the finalists has been a superintendent of large urban system, they will not hit every mark — especially in executing a large-scale school construction program — so look for proxy-like experiences that could provide a lens into how they might manage these challenges.

■  Connection to students and families: Many educators, students, and parents place a premium on a superintendent who knows the challenges and journeys of their students. All the finalists will probably share compelling narratives about their own lives and the challenges they overcame.

Look for how the finalists connect their personal history with the students they aim to serve and evidence that they include parents and guardians in the development of policies and initiatives that directly affect their children and families.


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

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