Brenda Cassellius, a former commissioner of education in Minnesota, officially begins her new job as Boston’s superintendent Monday. If all goes according to her hopes, she could end up having one of the city’s longest superintendent tenures: She said she would like to hand out high school diplomas in 13 years to the same students she will be welcoming in September as kindergartners.
During that time, she said, she would like to help Boston become the nation’s first major urban district to significantly close achievement gaps among students of different backgrounds.
“I honestly believe if it can’t happen in Boston, it can’t happen anywhere,” she said, noting the ample resources and partnerships the city has to offer, including dozens of universities and a diverse community of people willing to pitch in.
The Globe met with Cassellius Friday at School Department headquarters in Dudley Square in Roxbury to gain a sense of what educators, families, and other community members can expect from her in the coming months.
Here are five big takeaways from that talk:
Core values. Cassellius calls them her four pillars: inclusion, collaboration, equity, and joy. She wants to be as inclusive as possible and foster an environment where everyone feels welcomed in the Boston Public Schools. She wants to work in collaboration with her central office team, school leaders, teachers, students, families, and other community members. She wants to ensure that all students have what they need to succeed in school. And her goal is to raise morale among all members of the school community.
“I got a sense of the organization having a strong value around joy,” she said.
Addressing childhood poverty. Cassellius said she is eager to work with other members of Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s Cabinet on issues surrounding poverty and trauma that many of the school system’s 55,000 students bring to class with them. While serving as Minnesota’s education commissioner, she said, she enjoyed working with commissioners of other agencies on similar issues.
“We can continue to do the right things in school [regarding academics], but we will continue to get students who have incredible experiences with trauma, homelessness, food insecurity, substance abuse, physical abuse, foster care [and other] things that are outside of our control,” she said. “How can we as a school department take ownership of that so . . . children can get what they need outside of the school as well as inside the school.”
She said she is excited about working with the Boston Teachers Union on developing full-service community schools, which would integrate academics with comprehensive social and health services for children in an attempt to address all their needs. She said she spent the past three years in Minnesota on a similar effort, which impressed some lawmakers so much that they pushed for millions of additional dollars this year to broaden the effort.
A 100-day plan. Much work on the plan will begin with a listening tour after the new school year kicks off. Cassellius has set an ambitious goal: She intends to visit all the district’s 125 schools within 100 days. The structure of the tour is still under development, but she envisions visiting four or five schools in one day ideally, or maybe two, and then holding an evening town hall-style forum with educators, students, family members, and other community members.
“Nothing means more to teachers, school leaders, and a community than going out to their schools,” said Cassellius, who added that as commissioner she would sometimes drive six hours to a school in a far-flung part of Minnesota for a 15-minute ceremony.
More academic rigor. Cassellius said she will work with Walsh on expanding high-quality prekindergarten opportunities for all 4-year-olds under a hybrid system that includes programs operated by the school system and some by the private sector. It is similar, she said, to work she did in Minnesota providing high-quality preschool opportunities in public and private settings.
In elementary schools, she said she would like all students to have the opportunity to take well-constructed science programs. “I used to tell my superintendents in Minnesota if you offer science every day it will take care of the achievement gap,” she said. “Science is the gateway to learning and inquiry and understanding.” Scientific experimentation, she added, teaches students critical lessons about failure and persistence.
In high school, she said she wants to ensure all students — regardless if they have language barriers or disabilities — receive rigorous and challenging coursework. She would like to expand Advanced Placement courses and other similar programs and provide more opportunities for students to take part in career technical programs if they like. She said she is committed to turning Madison Park Technical Vocational High School into a state-of-the-art program.
BuildBPS. Cassellius said she hopes that any concerns over the long-term school construction and restructuring plan will subside in the coming months. She said she sees it becoming part of a larger strategic plan for the school system, which she said she will develop with the School Committee.
She said she also remains committed to one controversial aspect of the BuildBPS plan: the elimination of middle schools, which serve grades 6 through 8. In their place, elementary schools will end at Grade 6 or 8, and high schools will begin at Grade 7 or 9.