Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s Commissioner of Education, was named as the new Superintendent of Boston Public Schools (BPS) on May 1, 2019. Cassellius has spent the majority of her career in Minnesota working as a commissioner, a superintendent, an assistant principal, a diversity coordinator and a social studies teacher. The decision was made after a search process that lasted more than a year and included 39 candidates, three public interviews with the finalists and about 300 written survey responses from community members.
Cassellius’s resume, available on the BPS website, demonstrates a commitment to closing achievement gaps and advancing diversity initiatives. Cassellius was praised by numerous news outlets and interest groups for her political skills. School Committee Chairperson Michael Loconto, who was on the superintendent search committee, said that her extensive experience at all levels of educational administration, as well as the political skills she demonstrated working across the aisle, set her apart from the other candidates.
“We wanted someone that demonstrated some political acumen...and could get people all across our community to unite in the service of children,” he said. “Minnesota [is] regarded as a quote-unquote purple state, so she frequently had to work across the aisle to get things done.”
Many adults expressed hopes that Cassellius would work to mend community relations, which were broken as people lost trust in the schools. One thing that could improve relations would be increased equity. Cassellius’s resume claims that her policies resulted in Minnesota’s highest graduation rates on record and closed the achievement gap between white and non-white students by 30 percent.
Students have expressed hopes for increased communication and student influence on in the way the district is run.
“She should hold open 'town hall' style meetings with student, administrator, teacher, and parent representatives to provide a sense of transparency in the plans for BPS,” Clair Fu, a Boston Latin School senior said. “I would hope that the superintendent will have an open connection with the students instead of simply telling us what happens.”
Cassellius has already visited several Boston elementary schools and has told the Boston Globethat she hopes to observe more classrooms in the future.
While some have extended their well-wishes and support, others have expressed their discontent with the process and with the pick itself. Parents have questioned why organizations like the Citywide Parent Council were excluded from the process, despite similar complaints being raised consistently about BPS policymaking. “The district repeatedly closes CPC out of processes and it is frankly baffling to me,” said a Boston Latin School parent. “During the start times fiasco, CPC was also closed out of the conversation. In retrospect it was clear that had the district actively involved parents in more conversation before making sweeping policy decisions, they may have gained more traction.”
In an opinion piece for the Globe, City Council president Andrea Campbell criticized the search process for not consulting the city council and for being “quiet” and lacking clear timelines and transparency. “Not only are students and parents left out, but even the council has little knowledge as the process unfolds behind closed doors,” she wrote.
Concerns have also been raised about Cassellius’s record. She is leaving her previous position as Minnesota prepares for a class-action lawsuit alleging that the state racially segregates its students, with students of color fairing significantly worse than their white counterparts. Despite Cassellius’s claims of improvements the state saw under her leadership, Minnesota records suggest a more stagnant picture. Dan Shulman, the prosecution’s lead counsel, has stated that Cassellius left Minnesota’s schools an “unconstitutional mess”.
Boston has struggled with similar racial disparities. Chairman Loconto once again emphasized the need for city-wide consistency.
“We're trying to make it more consistent, the way that—the experiences that every student has in the Boston Public Schools,” he said. “We want a more consistent distribution of resources and programs across the schools.”
When she takes on the position, Cassellius will inherit similar conditions to those she faced in Minnesota — and she will need to work hard to amend them. “She should be proactive, instead of...reacting to changes,” says Fu, the BLS student.
Boston’s public schools are in need of revitalization, and Boston’s parents, teachers, and students have heaps of ideas on how to implement that. Cassellius will have to be able to listen and reconcile all of those voices.