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Aspiring BPS superintendent believes in making children the focus

Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, was interviewed by students, teachers, and parents Tuesday.
Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, was interviewed by students, teachers, and parents Tuesday. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

The three finalist candidates for superintendent of the Boston Public Schools are sitting for public interviews this week. Marie Izquierdo, the chief academic officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools, was interviewed on Monday.

Brenda Cassellius, a former Minnesota education commissioner, was interviewed on Tuesday, and Oscar Santos, head of Cathedral High School in the South End, will be interviewed on Wednesday.

School committee members will likely cast their votes the week of April 29.

Brenda Cassellius made the case that she was the best candidate to become Boston’s superintendent in a series of public interviews on Tuesday. While answering dozens of questions from community leaders, students, teachers, and parents, Cassellius emphasized her political savvy and commitment to transparency. “Everybody has my personal cellphone number,” she said.

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Here are some highlights from Cassellius’s public interviews:

On her first 100 days:

“I wouldn’t want to assume that because something worked in Minnesota or in Memphis or in any other setting I’ve been in, that it’s going to actually work here. I’d like to know from the community what it is [that] has worked and not worked . . . If I were your superintendent, when school starts, I would, within the first 100 days of school starting, get into every single school.”

On closing the achievement gap:

Cassellius said that battling the achievement gap requires focusing on academics, but also on a range of nonacademic issues, from prenatal care to early-childhood education to housing.

“I think historically, we’ve coordinated the academic pieces, but we haven’t really taken the responsibility to coordinate all of the other social services pieces,” she said. “I think it’s our responsibility to do both the in-school and out-of-school factors.”

On why she wants to work in Boston:

“I’m looking for a district that is ready to really move the agenda for kids who are vulnerable and who need us to look at not just the academics, but a holistic approach. I think mayoral control allows for that and I’m used to working with an executive.”

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On standardized testing:

“I don’t really care for standardized testing. I’m an open book about that over the past eight years. I’m not a big supporter of it. I think that it allows for accountability, and it allows for larger scale decisions. But I don’t think that tests ought to be used for individual high-stakes decisions ever.”

On how to assess student performance without standardized tests:

“The real things that parents want us to be able to deliver is a high quality education, a well-rounded education. They want arts, they want music, they want science at elementary school, they want to see their children be connected, and have debate programs, and after-school programs, and a rich community, and P.E. every day.”

On juggling both the operational tasks and the big-picture vision of the job:

“I have always been able to handle a number of complex things going on at the same time. I’m a good air-traffic controller.”

On navigating the politics of Boston’s mayor-controlled school system:

“I’ve been commissioner of education for the past eight years of Minnesota. You just don’t last that long if you can’t handle the politics.”

On what she’d like to be known for after five years in the job:

“I would hope to be known for having Boston Public Schools be parents’ first choice in the community.”

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On the school-to-prison pipeline:

In Memphis, where Cassellius was the superintendent of middle schools, she successfully ended corporal punishment in schools and helped to shift the culture inside classrooms.

“We also worked with the county attorney’s office because we found that students who were in a fight, for instance, would get an arrest record. We worked with them to change that practice,” she said.

On recent turnover in Boston school leadership:

“It’s really important to have consistency of leadership. I am looking for consistency if I come. I want to stay for a while. I’m looking for a capstone to my career. So that’s why it’s really important to know that about me. It’s not like I’m coming for two years.”

On Boston’s reputation as a tough city:

“In terms of my Minnesota-nice, I told the story earlier of one of my Memphis principals. He had been principal for a very long time and I came to his school, and he said, ‘You know, that soft, nice stuff isn’t going to work here.’ He said, ‘You’re going to have to be a little bit tougher if you think you’re going to be successful here in Memphis.’ Two years later, we’re getting good results, and we’re doing all this professional learning together, and everybody’s having fun, and it’s joyful. And he said, ‘OK, so maybe it does work.’

I can take the hits and roll with them and roll with the punches, because we always put children at the center. You just work through it. I have a very thick skin. I don’t read the comments.”

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A brief look at Cassellius’s resume:

Most recent experience: Cassellius worked as Minnesota’s commissioner of education for eight years. She is also one of five finalists interviewing to be Michigan’s superintendent of schools.

Prior experience: Superintendent of schools in the East Metro Integration District in Maplewood, Minn.; associate superintendent of secondary schools in Minneapolis: superintendent of middle schools in Memphis,; and an assistant principal and teacher in Minnesota.

Personal information:

Age: 51

Marital/family status: Cassellius is married and has three children.

Education: Bachelor of Arts from University of Minnesota (1989); Master of Arts from University of St. Thomas (1991); Doctorate in leadership and policy from University of Memphis (2007)


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com.