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Opinion

opinion | Michael Contompasis

Reimagine, rather than patch, Boston schools

I should have been bolder. When I look back on my years as chief operating officer and superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, I can see now that I was too focused on incremental changes that produced marginal results. I failed to see that, absent significant structural changes to the district, we would be unable to realize dramatic — and necessary — improvements in student outcomes.

As Boston stands poised to select both a new mayor and a new school superintendent, we have a window of opportunity to find a leader who understands that the way to fix what’s broken is not to apply a Band-Aid to a system that’s not working for all students. It is to reimagine the system itself.

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The current structure of the Boston Public Schools gets in the way of student success. In too many cases, students start kindergarten without a clear sense of where they will attend middle or high school. Students often attend schools far from their own neighborhoods, undermining the schools’ ability to serve as community hubs. And the district’s top-down, hierarchical structure concentrates too much power within the bureaucracy of the central office and gives too little flexibility and autonomy to principals and teachers.

Instead, imagine giving parents the option of choosing a small cluster of schools in their neighborhood that create a clear path for their children from elementary to middle to high school. Giving parents a sense of certainty about where their children will attend school at each step of their K-12 journeys will create greater coherence within the district — stability that is a necessary ingredient for high-quality schools.

Then go a step further. What if those small groups of schools were given increased flexibility and autonomy to shape their school environments instead of having to go along with the one-size-fits-all decisions handed down by the central office? What if the overstaffed bureaucracy of the central office were streamlined and jobs and responsibility moved closer to the schools? Units — whether an internal office or an external nonprofit — would be responsible for running small groups of schools clustered in neighborhoods throughout the city. Think of these as mini-school districts, each managed by a “super principal” who would oversee a handful of schools, not just one.

In this vision of the district, the central office would still have an important role to play in holding these small groups of schools and the units managing them accountable for student outcomes, but the balance of power would shift closer to the schools. This approach reimagines the district as a system that embraces all types of school designs, including charter and pilot schools, and gives those institutions the freedom to create the conditions necessary for success.

The seeds of this strategy have already been planted. Look at East Boston, where geography creates a natural alignment between Umana Academy and East Boston High School, or at the Grove Hall neighborhood, where preliminary efforts are underway to build stronger ties among Frederick Middle School, King K-8, and the Burke High School. Now we need to be more deliberate and strategic about creating these school clusters throughout all of the city’s neighborhoods in order to give all parents a high-quality, local option to consider when choosing where their children will go to school.

The new student assignment plan tries to address some of these issues, but it doesn’t go far enough, and we can’t waste any more time on half measures. To this end, we should ask superintendent candidates to commit to strip down the district office and move responsibility for historically centralized functions closer to the schools. We should ask candidates to commit to a vision for the future of the Boston Public Schools that is not weighted down by the district’s past — and for a commitment to make the bold and difficult decisions necessary to make that vision a reality.

Implementing this type of bold change will not be easy. But it will fundamentally transform the public school system and ensure that all students graduate from high school prepared for college and career success.

Michael Contompasis, former headmaster of the Boston Latin School and former CEO and superintendent of the Boston Public Schools, is senior field consultant at Mass Insight Education.

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