Just over three years ago, I arrived in Boston with genuine excitement that my 30-year career as an educator had called me to serve as superintendent of Boston Public Schools. As I prepare to pass the baton to my good friend and colleague Mary Skipper, I offer some reflections on what worked and what didn’t during my tenure, and how Boston can help its superintendents succeed.
Over the past three years, the Boston Public Schools worked closely with community partners and staff to advance equity and inclusion, enacting policies that had eluded previous administrations for years. Chief among these was a change to the admissions requirements for our three exam schools: Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the John D. O’Bryant School of Math and Science. The new admissions policy is already increasing the number of invitations extended to Black, brown, and economically disadvantaged students who previously had been excluded.
My team and I also worked closely with the School Committee to enhance the value of a BPS diploma by adopting the state standards known as MassCore. Before I arrived in Boston, each of our 32 high schools had its own unique graduation requirements. That was not a pathway to success for a mobile student population and often meant students arrived at college unprepared.
We also leveraged a historic investment from then-mayor Marty Walsh to commit more than $100 million in additional funding to BPS over a three-year period. Those funds created a “quality guarantee” and ensured that every school had school nurses, counselors, psychologists, social workers, and family liaisons to meet each student’s individual needs and ensure they stay on track.
What held us back
There is little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic held us back. It was an obstacle that no school superintendent in America could have imagined navigating. Despite the uncertainty that often meant what was true on one day was no longer valid the next, we mobilized and pivoted to meet the urgent needs of young people and their families. BPS provided more than 7 million meals, delivered thousands of laptops, and provided free Wi-Fi to students who needed them, and quickly transitioned to delivering instruction virtually, essentially closing the digital divide overnight. However, despite the heroic work of educators, staff, and the community, the pandemic delayed us from taking on many critically important structural changes that must still be addressed by the next superintendent and the City.
The pandemic also exposed us to staffing shortages that hampered our ability to transport students to school and fully staff open positions such as custodial, food, and nutrition services staff, substitute teachers, and more. Addressing BPS’s workforce shortages will be among the most urgent priorities facing the district’s next leader.
There is a perception that no one can succeed in Boston as a superintendent because the challenges are too great. That is the wrong way to look at the issue. Of course, no single person does this work alone, and as I have said all along, it requires all hands on deck. That means people inside and outside the organization must not let the quest for perfection stand in the way of progress. The next superintendent will need the support and partnership of many constituencies — such as the business, philanthropic, and faith communities — to ensure BPS continues to move forward, united in purpose. The talent and tenacity exist in every community and corner of our city; they just need to be focused and mobilized.
While my tenure as superintendent was shorter than I initially envisioned, I believe I was called to Boston for a time like this — to help guide our students, families, and community through the pandemic and to lay a foundation for the next chapters yet to be written in the story of the nation’s first public school system. I am a better leader for the experience and a better person for the lessons I’ve learned from so many of the people I’ve met and worked with along the way.
Being a school superintendent is one of the most challenging jobs in any community. It is also one of the most worthy. Our charge as educators is to help raise future generations, providing them with knowledge in safe, welcoming classrooms where they can learn and thrive. Even when the work is difficult — and sometimes seemingly insurmountable — we must go where we are needed when we are called. It is because of the young people in this city, and their tremendous resilience and potential, that I am grateful to have served here and to have called Boston my home for the past three years. I wish them, this city, and incoming superintendent Skipper an abundance of success and joy. I will be cheering you all on.
Brenda Cassellius is the outgoing superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. Prior to Boston, she served as Minnesota’s commissioner of education.