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Cassellius inherits vexing challenges in BPS system

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the Banner’s senior editor. VIEW BIO
Cassellius inherits vexing challenges in BPS system
Brenda Cassellius. BANNER FILE PHOTO

Touching what appears to have become a third rail of city politics, newly appointed Boston Public School Superintendent Brenda Cassellius last week suggested that the city look beyond the ISEE test for entrance to its exam high schools, noting that the test’s cost of $140 per student far exceeds the cost of administering similar tests.

In an appearance on WGBH’s Boston Public Radio last Wednesday, Cassellius said she would be open to exploring an alternative to the exam, which is commonly used for entrance to private schools and contains material that is not part of the BPS curriculum.

“We could talk this over and see, are there other options in terms of the exam,” she said. “There might be something that, quite frankly, will save us money.”

The next day, however, Cassellius, whose first day on the job was July 1,  told the Boston Globe she has no plans to explore replacing the controversial exam, which many education activists say exacerbates the underrepresentation of Latino and black students in the city’s three exam schools ⎯ Boston Latin School, Boston Latin Academy, and the O’Bryant School of Math and Science.

While 73 percent of the students in BPS schools are black and Latino, their representation in the exam schools is lower, particularly at Boston Latin School, where they make up 20 percent of the student body.

Exam school admissions is just one of several controversies the former Minnesota commissioner of education inherited when she took the top education job in Boston. Education activists will also be pressing for greater transparency in the school department’s decision-making processes, including the ambitious $1 billion Build BPS plan to build new schools and renovate existing ones and a school assignment process that appears to be increasing racial and economic segregation among students.

Parent involvement will be key to her success in tackling these thorny issues, said Ruby Reyes, executive director of the Boston Education Justice Alliance, one of several local organizations that urged the Boston School Committee to hire Cassellius over two other candidates for the job.

“I’m hopeful that Dr. Cassellius will begin to problem-solve with parents and students and families,” Reyes told the Banner.

Cassellius’ brief foray into the murky terrain of exam school admissions was not the first time a superintendent has raised the issue. Former Superintendent Tommy Chang and interim Superintendent Laura Perille both publicly indicated a willingness to review the use of the ISEE exam. Chang began assembling an advisory commission in 2016 to look at the issue, before Mayor Martin Walsh nixed the idea. On March 5 this year, Perille announced the department was exploring the idea of replacing the exam, only to retract the statement a day later.

“We need to be careful and deliberate,” Perille told WBUR.

Reyes said Perille’s and Chang’s experience with the issue shows there are limits to public discourse over school policy.

“Nobody touches exam schools,” Reyes said. “It will be interesting to see if they do anything at all.”

A host of pressing issues

While the exam school test made headlines last week, Cassellius will likely confront a wide range of contentious issues in the coming year. For one, the gap between educational outcomes of black and Latino students and their white peers remains a major challenge for the Boston schools. NAACP Boston Branch President Tanisha Sullivan said the school department needs to make sure black and Latino students have equal access to resources ranging from rigorous coursework to state-of-the-art buildings.

“There’s no silver bullet when it comes to closing the achievement gap,” she said. “It has to be a multi-pronged approach.”

Sullivan said Cassellius will need to work closely with parents, students and other stakeholders to solve the district’s more pressing problems.

“I’m hopeful that Dr. Cassellius will be able to bring us together around what we want and how we get there,” she said.

Cassellius has not yet had to deal with school closures or the construction of new buildings, but both issues are likely to come up under her watch as the department implements Walsh’s BuildBPS plan. During the last school year, students, teachers and parents from the McCormack Middle School and the two schools housed in the West Roxbury Education Complex fought the district’s plans to close their respective schools. While the McCormack school community was able to negotiate a merger with Boston Community Leadership Academy, the West Roxbury schools were shuttered.

Activists say they expect that scenario to play out again and again as the city constructs large new buildings to replace many of the 125 structures in the system.

“There will be more closures to accommodate the larger schools,” said Travis Watson, the parent of two students at the Phineas Bates Elementary School in Roslindale
zand a member of the group Quality Education for Every Student.

Walsh in 2014 reportedly told QUEST members he thought the city should pare the number of schools down to 90 from what was then 126 buildings. A much-maligned 2015 report from the consulting firm McKinsey & Company arrived at a similar conclusion.

Watson said the district’s decision to break up the school communities in the West Roxbury Education Complex underscores the challenges for BPS families in the coming years as BuildBPS unfolds.

“The building stock in Boston is really old,” he said. “If we aren’t going to make a priority for students whose lives are being turned upside down, what’s going to happen moving forward?”

Roxbury resident Lucas Orwig, whose son attends the Hernandez K–8 school, said it will be important for the school department to work with parents and listen to their input — something Cassellius has indicated she intends
to do.

“I’m cautiously optimistic and hopeful that she will have a different approach to engaging with the community,” Orwig said. “It remains to be seen what’s actually going to happen.”

While the district has an Office of Engagement whose stated goal is to “encourage authentic engagement of schools, families, and the community in BPS decision making and policy,” critics point to episodes like the closing of the West Roxbury Education Complex and the dispersal of the school communities housed there as an example where student and parent concerns were not factored into major decisions.

“BPS families should be helping problem-solve,” Reyes said. “Their feedback should be implemented in their schools. They know what’s needed. I’m hopeful that Dr. Cassellius will be willing to involve parents and students in important decisions.”

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