By Seth Daniel and John Lynds
Newly chosen Supt. Brenda Cassellius made her first public appearances this week, having been tabbed on May 1 and her contract expected to be ratified by the School Committee last night, May 8.
At one pubic appearance, she said she would start things off by being present in the neighborhoods and listening to parent – trying to tackle the achievement gap and the anxiety parents feel about grade transitions.
Cassellius said she was to meet with teachers late on Wednesday, and she plans to do a lot of listening to hear parents, staff and students.
“I don’t want to come with assumptions that some things that worked for me in the past will work here, but I do know some things have worked in the past,” she said on Wednesday. “It’s important for me to go out and listen to the teachers…I need to find out what’s working and what isn’t working so we can maximize the dollars and put them where they are needed. It’s a lot of listening at first, but I know people want to get going, so we’ll develop some plans and work those plans… Parents are really just wanting to be listened to now and we’ll see what emerges from there.”
She also said she would like to get the youth more involved in the decision making process and wanted students to know their new school leader will listen.
“For kids, my message is that your voice matters and I’m going to be working with the Youth Board and try to get them truly involved in the decisions that impact them every day,” she said. “For the overall community, my message is it’s going to take an all-hands-on-deck approach. We need all of us wrapping our heads around the issues. Expect me to be out and present in their communities and listening to them.”
Last Wednesday, the Boston School Committee voted 5-2 to offer the position of Superintendent of the Boston Public Schools (BPS) to Dr. Brenda Cassellius, who most recently stepped down as Commissioner of Education for the state of Minnesota.
The vote was taken during a meeting where School Committee members publicly debated the qualifications of the three finalists for the Superintendent position, which also included Dr. Oscar Santos, Head of School for Cathedral 7-12 High School in the South End; and Marie Izquierdo, Chief Academic Officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools in Florida.
The BPS Superintendent Search Committee held a series of public interviews with the three candidates last month all over the city.
“All three superintendent candidates brought excellent ideas and experience to the discussion. On behalf of the Boston School Committee, I thank all of them for participating in this public process,” said Boston School Committee Chair Michael Loconto. “We are excited to begin working soon with Dr. Cassellius, whose wealth of experience, commitment to equity, and proven track record as an education leader will be critical in continuing our progress in the Boston Public Schools.”
Cassellius served as Education Commissioner for Minnesota from 2011, and would succeed Laura Pereille, the current Interim Superintendent and former CEO of the education improvement organization EdVestors. Perille became the Interim Superintendent last summer following the resignation of Dr. Tommy Chang, who held the superintendent role for three years.
“With the selection of Dr. Cassellius, we’re investing in a proven leader who knows what’s right for kids and understands the value of community voice,” said Mayor Martin Walsh.
At one of her public appearances Wednesday, Supt. Cassellius stood in while Mayor Walsh talked with a group of parents. While the mayor implored them to not only think of elementary school issues, but also to give the non-exam high schools a shot – Supt. Cassellius listened in and took in the concerns.
Later, she said she does support the idea of limiting transitions for students and families, but that there needs to be a discussion in the neighborhoods first.
“I do believe less transitions for students are always good for families,” she said. “But then when we look at middle schools and what works at middle schools, they have specific adolescent needs we all know of as parents of teen-agers. We want to make sure we develop programming and curriculum that is rigorous across our schools and there is equitable…I think they were talking about K-6, K-8, and 9-12 – however those configurations work. We’ll be talking to the community about how those make sense and how to minimize the transitions. I know the mayor has talked about these things before already with families and communities. We’ll continue to build on that real good work that Supt. Pereille has been working on.”
Her impression of Boston so far has been quite good in the initial days – being greeted with a mob of activity and excitement at the McCarthy Playground.
“I love Boston,” she said. “The people have been so friendly to me and so welcoming to me. I’ve met all the staff around and folks in the communities now. I’m anxious to get out and talk with more people in the communities, but folks have been so gracious and wonderful to me…The biggest thing is earning the public’s trust and going out and talking with them in the community – speaking with them authentically about their hopes and dreams for their children. Once I do that it’s easier to come together with a plan and get consensus. Then we can collaborate and connect the dots. I’m also very anxious to start meeting with the cabinet and bringing to bear some of the resources the City has. I have met with a lot of Cabinet members and I know the mayor is very interested in this. So, working across the different agencies is important to do the best for communities.”
The new superintendent, coming to Boston after a long stint in icy Minnesota, made about 9,000 friends when she shared her love of hockey and her experience playing the game – particularly having become a Bruins fan in recent weeks.
“Yes I am a hockey player,” she said after being introduced by Mayor Martin Walsh. “I started when I was 42 and have played about nine years on a women’s team. Now, I’m not the greatest stick handler, but I’m a pretty good skater…Of course I’m going to become a Bruins fan. I’ve already been watching them and super excited about them. Go Bruins.”
According to her resume Cassellius enacted comprehensive education reforms, including historic new funding for schools, enactment of all-day kindergarten, state-funded preschool for 25,000 children, and has overseen historically high graduation rates. She has also served on the board of directors for the Council for Chief State School Officers and contributed to the development of “10 Equity Commitments,” which education chiefs across the country worked to adopt to further equity goals and outcomes.
However, before she left Minnesota, the state’s educational system has been embroiled in a lawsuit since 2015 alleging constitutional violations.
In 2015, seven families and a nonprofit organization sued the state, alleging a range of constitutional violations, including the state government’s refusal to change the boundaries of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school districts; creating charter schools; and inequitably distributing resources. Because the Minneapolis and Saint Paul school systems enroll a disproportionately high number of minority and low-income students, the plaintiffs claim that the districts’ boundaries violate the uniformity requirement of the constitution.
Cassellius was named in the lawsuit.
Those who filed the suit alleged that their children received an inadequate education as the “result of the educational and social policies pursued or accepted by (state officials), including the racial and socioeconomic segregation of the Minneapolis and Saint Paul public schools.”
In July 2018, in a 4–2 opinion, the Minnesota Supreme Court overturned a lower court ruling that dismissed the case, asserting that judicial intervention was indeed allowable and sent the case back to the trial court where it still sits.