Boston Public Schools has been one hell of a roller coaster. With ups and downs, and downs, and a lot of downs, I can’t say I’m the saddest leaving it behind. I’m a graduating senior this year, so I have a few years of experience to reflect on. For nearly half my life I have been surrounded by BPS. These last few years have especially highlighted the nooks and crannies of the education system. These cracks were lit with iridescent blue and poorly positioned cameras in the wake of the pandemic. Disparities and inequalities became apparent, mental health issues rose, and academics rushed and forfeited. If not for you, then for me, it was the worst year in academic history. When the pandemic died down, the weaknesses of BPS were still exposed and bleeding. In a time like this, some heroic leadership would have to shine through these hardships and bring about a new golden age. And yet, we’ve gone through 3 BPS Superintendents since the pandemic.
This is not to say that they’ve necessarily failed as Superintendents. The newest Superintendent Mary Skipper shows a promising rise and a promising past. According to Boston Public Schools and Harvard University,
“Superintendent Skipper was a Network Superintendent of High Schools for BPS, where she oversaw 34 high schools serving approximately 19,500 students. During her time as Network Superintendent, Boston’s high school’s annual dropout rate consistently decreased from 7.9% (before her tenure) in SY11-12 to 4.5% by SY14-15. At the same time, the graduation rate consistently increased from a rate of 65.9% in 2012 to 70.7% by the end of 2015. Among her most notable accomplishments while at BPS, Superintendent Skipper helped launch TechBoston Academy (TBA) as the founding school leader in 2002. Under her leadership, TBA grew from a 9-12 high school serving 75 students to a 6-12 school with a staff of more than 100 serving a diverse student population of more than 1,000, 30% of which were English Language Learners and 25% of which were Special Education students.”
Our upcoming superintendent’s promise is heavily contrasted with the discretions of our current district. Nearly all of us have had collective experience with Boston Public Schools. Nearly 74% of all Boston teens to be more precise. Although I cannot speak for all of us, I certainly can speak for myself, so what I will say is: my experience with BPS has been terrible. Regardless of whether that comes from a youthful and ignorant mind longing for simple fun, a nostalgic remembrance of my previous system, or a culmination of poor circumstances, I see BPS as a flailing animal trying to catch its tail. This was made especially clear during my year in the pandemic. I hold quite a bit of resentment towards BPS because of that year, misguided or not, with it being my worst year, in both academics and mental well-being. In more statistical proof of floundering, BPS has gone through 6 Superintendents in 10 years. For reference, the average length a Superintendent leads is 6 years. In recent years, DESE, Department of Education and Secondary Education, has released detailed reports which highlight the failures to properly educate the most vulnerable and to overcome systemic barriers, such as transportation infractions towards students with disabilities that violate student rights, blistering lack of support for English language learners, and a lack of quality curriculum, especially at the high school level. Another major concern was the inaccurate data reported back, as data ranging from timely attendance to bathroom renovation were not properly recorded, and some were easily proven incorrect. Such failures risked the district being labeled as “underperforming” by the DESE, only narrowly avoided by the completion of a 5-year plan to improve BPS.
To prevent the continuation of the myriad of problems to fester, Mary Skipper has begun to enact her plan to renew our district. I had the luxury of being able to interview her in person, so this will be in her own words. Many of her current priorities are fixing the gaping flaws within the district that were painfully exposed by the DESE reports. Specifically speaking, their goals in “making this an inclusive district where students with disabilities can learn right alongside their peers, and just have an incredible environment and strength of inclusion, to extending access of native language and bilingual education to students wanting to be able to learn other languages, to our early college and career model at the high school level, and bringing that back to the high schools.” The plan for students with disabilities is to put forth an inclusion model where all schools have programs tailored for them, allowing them to be able to not be restricted from school choice by the lack of that program. Alongside increasing inclusivity, she also plans to integrate students with disabilities with those who don’t have disabilities, as “when students with disabilities and students without a disability work together in a learning environment, they both improve and both progress and make advancement.” To foster a welcoming environment to accommodate this inclusivity, Skipper has worked towards restorative justice practice, in which when hurtful and hateful things are done and said, the ones who committed the misconduct are receiving the punishment that makes them realize what they did wrong rather than a blind consequence. “And that allows the person that made the mistake or, or did something, to be able to kind of walk back in and recognize that what happened was hurtful to the community…But that means that’s why restorative justice practice isn’t such as something that you teach. It’s something you practice. And so it requires everyone in the community, adults, the adult parents, teachers, the leaders in the students all being willing to do and participated.” She realizes that both student and teacher are prone to wrongdoings, and in realizing that, hopes to promote a community and safe space for both to learn from their mistakes.
With all this being said, I’m sorry to say I’m still skeptical about the success of BPS. Big ambitions and laid-out plans are not one-of-a-kind in this position. They are simple requirements for success, not promises. Take Brenda Cassellius, the previous superintendent. She was Minnesota’s education commissioner and associate superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools before she took up this challenge. During the start of her term, she went on to visit all 125 school buildings, a wild display of determination. She pushed for change in student mental health, better environments, and equity. Despite this daring show of ambition, her term lasted 3 years, half of the average. This is not to undercut her ability; she pushed towards equity in her exam school admissions revision, raising graduation requirements to match university admission requirements, and despite frustrations surrounding the pandemic year, still scored high marks on the pandemic year. The task of “superintendent” is a monumental challenge. How could one person balance the education of 74% of all Boston teens on their shoulders? That would require superhuman talent, prodigious dedication, and godly management. Perhaps Mary Skipper could be our knight in shining armor, but I don’t personally like relying on miracles, especially when history is going against the already slim odds. Although, seeing that bright future, no matter how probable, still gives me hope for tomorrow