A day after she was selected as Boston’s next school superintendent, Brenda Cassellius said on Thursday that community engagement would be at the heart of her early work in the school system as she prepares to take over by July 1.
Bostonians can expect to see her at community gatherings, religious services, and other events in coming weeks. She also said she would like to visit some schools — as long as her appearance doesn’t disrupt learning as the school year winds down.
“Boston is such an empowering community,” said Cassellius, the former education commissioner of Minnesota. “I didn’t feel that until I got to Boston. . . . People are so ready to come together.”
The School Committee, in choosing Cassellius over two other finalists in a 5-2 vote, made clear that her seeming ability during last week’s public interview process to connect with teachers, students, families, community partners, and other stakeholders was a big part of her appeal.
The school system has struggled to regain trust after a series of controversies in recent years, including the abrupt resignation last summer of former superintendent Tommy Chang and the hasty installation of a temporary leader.
“We need some healing,” School Committee member Jeri Robinson said Wednesday night.
But questions persist over how much change Cassellius will be able to squeeze out of good will and repaired relationships as she sets out to remedy longstanding problems. Those issues include racial achievement gaps, low-performing schools, and declining enrollment, which dropped by about 1,200 students from last school year to this school year.
Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, said the task of repairing damaged relationships should not be Cassellius’ alone.
“We should remember that she is not responsible for creating the lack of trust that exists. It’s important for us not to put that on her shoulders,” Sullivan said. “We all need to take responsibility to work with her to move the district forward.”
Having to calm the waters is an unusual task for an incoming superintendent in Boston, where the last two leaders — Chang in 2015 and Carol Johnson in 2007 — stepped in after their predecessors retired. Each one had the benefit of starting with a fresh slate, and each took the time to foster relationships as they formulated their agendas.
But this time around, unifying various interest groups — who often have competing agendas — is critical, said Neil Sullivan, executive director of the Boston Private Industry Council, a nonprofit focused on youth workforce development.
“There’s a real risk of isolation for the BPS if constituencies continue to fight among themselves; people will step away,” he said. “She’s offering the antidote to that, and the timing is right.”
Cassellius, who worked under Johnson when she was superintendent in Minneapolis and Memphis, said Thursday that she is up to the challenge.
“Communication is key to building trust,” she said. “I have found over my tenures, if you can be a good communicator and make sure the right voices are at the table . . . it’s easier to navigate those thornier issues.”
But she added, “Everyone might not agree on the policies and means to get there.”
For example, she pointed out that while she served for eight years as education commissioner, she pulled together the state’s teachers union and the administrator and school board associations to craft a new teacher evaluation system. The process included trade-offs, including a major concession by teachers: the use of student test scores in their performance reviews, a practice that teachers nationwide tend to oppose.
In Memphis, she worked with Johnson to abolish corporal punishment in schools.
Cassellius said she was still figuring out when her next visit to Boston might be, although it could be as early as next week. She said she expects to travel back and forth frequently over the next two months between Massachusetts and Minnesota, where her youngest son will be graduating from high school.
Cassellius said she watched online Wednesday night as the public weighed in on the candidates and as School Committee members cast their votes. She said she heard from Mayor Martin J. Walsh during the meeting that he was supporting her candidacy. But she added she wasn’t banking on it being a sure thing until the last vote was cast, saying “boards are fickle.”
“I’m so honored and humbled by the support I got from the School Committee and the community,” Cassellius said. “The other two candidates are so talented.”
The other two finalists were Marie Izquierdo, chief academic officer for the Miami-Dade County Public Schools, and Oscar Santos, president of Cathedral High School in Boston.
Cassellius said she was looking forward to being part of the mayor’s Cabinet and working with city agencies on issues that intersect with public schooling, such as housing and poverty.
She said she expected her district-improvement plan will include a number of initiatives that are already underway, such as expanding preschool and diversifying the teaching workforce, as well as new measures based on conversations with all constituencies and her review of the system.
“Part of my passion is working around issues of equity and closing racial achievement gaps,” she said.
Cassellius, who was also a finalist for the state superintendent of Michigan, notified the firm overseeing that hiring process Wednesday night that she would be withdrawing her name from consideration.
The School Committee, which met privately after the public vote Wednesday to begin drafting a contract with Cassellius, hopes to have a deal done next week, Michael Loconto, the committee chair, said Wednesday night. It’s not clear how much she will make, but Chang’s base salary for his last full calendar year on the job was $265,000, according to city records.
Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts education secretary who has been critical of the Boston search, said the School Committee made an excellent choice.
“I’m impressed with her track record,” Reville said. “Minnesota has been a top performing state. Her Memphis work at middle schools showed significant gains in reading, math, and special education. . . . And she has fought some battles.”
Santos offered his congratulations Thursday to Cassellius and thanked his supporters.
“As a product of the Boston Public School system myself, I recognize the critical importance of the position, as well as the inherent challenges facing Dr. Cassellius in her new role,” he said in a statement. “I applaud her and wish her well because a strong, effective leader is crucial in the development and growth of strong, effective students, educators and schools. If that happens, we all win.”