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Search for school superintendent nearing home stretch

Finalists to be introduced in February forums

Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson
Sandra Larson is a Boston-based freelance journalist covering urban/social issues and policy. VIEW BIO
Search for school superintendent nearing home stretch
Assisted by a Chinese interpreter, a Boston Public School parent voices her priorities for a new school superintendent at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School Jan. 12. (Photo: Sandra Larson)

The lengthy search for a permanent Boston Public Schools superintendent may be in its final months.

At a public forum held this week by the Superintendent Search Committee, attendees learned that some 70 people have applied for the Boston job, filled by interim Superintendent John McDonough since Carol R. Johnson’s retirement in 2013. Forum moderator Bob Gittens explained that this large applicant pool has been reviewed and narrowed with the help of the executive search firm Hazard, Young, Attea & Associates. A winnowed-down group of applicants will be interviewed by the Search Committee in the next few weeks, and by early February, three final candidates will be referred to the School Committee and Mayor Martin Walsh.

The names and other information about applicants have been kept confidential in the early stages of the search, but in February, a series of public forums will introduce the three finalists to Bostonians. After a period of public input, the new superintendent could be hired as early as the end of February, and would likely start in July.

The 12-member Superintendent Search Committee was formed a year ago by Mayor Martin Walsh and the Boston School Committee to spearhead the process of recruiting and hiring a new superintendent, and is made up of parents, School Committee members, teachers, and leaders from the education, philanthropy and business sectors.

Eight community forums

The Jan. 12 event, held at Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School, was the eighth community forum since the search process began. The first seven forums were held in March, 2014 in neighborhoods throughout the city. These earlier meetings focused on identifying what characteristics a diverse set of stakeholders desired in a school superintendent. One forum was specifically for students. The search firm collected feedback from the public forums and also from several focus groups and an online survey, and this data informed the School Committee’s job description and the firm’s recruiting efforts. (Details and data from the forums, focus groups and survey been compiled in a 64-page report visible to the public on the BPS website.)

For this eighth meeting Gittens, vice president for public affairs at Northeastern University and a BPS parent, served as moderator, allowing Search Committee members to listen and take notes.

Timed just before the final vetting of candidates, this event had a threefold purpose, Gittens said: to provide an update on the process after a several-month hiatus; to explain what will happen next; and to give another chance for residents to express their views on key characteristics for the right superintendent.

Passionate Input

Most of the 90-minute forum was devoted to public comments. From the audience of students, parents, educators, elected officials and nonprofit workers and leaders, about 20 stepped to the microphone with their thoughts.

The past six months have seen several BPS-related news items that might influence community priorities for the next school leader. In August and September, Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury was plagued by problems, from a severe last-minute shortage of staff to an opening week in which students had no schedules. In November, a new study shed stark light on disparities in opportunities and outcomes in BPS for black and Latino male students.

“What’s important to me is a superintendent who is present, and realizes that racism is real,” said Cara Mathews, a Roxbury resident looking ahead to school options for her three-year-old son. “We need to acknowledge that black and brown students are further behind. If we’re going to arrive, we have to arrive together.”

Judith Baker, a retired BPS teacher, decried what she said was the fall of Madison Park from its former position as a great vocational/technical school that could send students on to good careers, and said the new superintendent must make it a priority to bring the school back up.

Cheng Imm Tan, holding her three-year-old daughter, wished for a superintendent who understands the difficulties faced by non-English-speaking families and who sees the value for students of being bilingual.

“Being bilingual is not seen as an asset. For ELL students, Sheltered English Immersion classes are seen as something to be ashamed of,” she said. “But language is a bridge to cultural competence. All students should be exposed to another language.”

Other attendees, speaking passionately and in a few cases communicating through an interpreter, asked for a superintendent who knows how to form and nurture a team; prioritizes inclusion of special education students; has an understanding of the relationship between ELL and special education; understands the trauma, violence and homelessness that some Boston children face; makes sure all high schools provide enough Advanced Placement courses for students ready and eager for them; and has a strong ability to perform the “fiscal acrobatics” necessary to manage ever-short school budgets.

Katrina Shaw attended the forum as both parent of an 11th-grader and as chief executive officer of Freedom House, a longstanding Boston social justice and youth educational opportunity organization. She did not approach the microphone, but afterward, she said the points about inclusion and about embracing exposure to other languages resonated with her.

“When you celebrate differences, students automatically become culturally competent. They develop a cultural humility,” she said.

Public meetings in February to meet the final superintendent candidates will be announced soon, Gittens said.

For more information on the superintendent search process, including the Leadership Profile Report with data from public forums, focus groups and surveys, find “Superintendent Search Committee” in the “School Committee” menu at www.bostonpublic schools.org.