Although there is no “calm” period in the year for a large urban school district, there is certainly something gratifying about the beginning of summer—students have finished another year, and schools and central offices can focus on preparation for the next. At least, that’s what usually happens. This year brought abrupt changes, with Tommy Chang’s unexpected departure and the controversial appointment of new interim superintendent Laura Perille.
Much of the media coverage last June focused on overviewing Chang’s rocky tenure, as well as questioning the lack of community input surrounding Perille’s selection. But as students head back to class, attention shifts from the past to the future.
“It’s an enormous logistic challenge to get 57,000 children into clean, safe and welcoming buildings with transportation ready to go, with healthy meals ready to be served, and with teachers and staff hired and ready to go,” said Perille. Much of her focus so far has been supporting school and central office staff, ensuring that the 2018-2019 school year begins without any major issues. “It’s not automatic, and it requires attention, so it’s worth saying out loud,” she said of the process.
After the initial kinks of the first few weeks of school are smoothed out, Perille will shift her focus to advancing the district’s long-term goals, including BuildBPS. The Boston Public Schools website boasts a 230-page guide to their “10-year educational and facilities master plan,” but the interim superintendent acknowledges that we have a long way to go before its completion. “That conversation has had some struggles over the past couple of years around clarity, transparency and authenticity of the community engagement process,” said Perille. She believes that now is the time for the difficult conversations that the city must have in order to move forward with big changes for the future.
As for the opinions of the students themselves, they would like to see Perille in action before they make a final judgement. Emma Berens, a senior at Boston Latin School, said she “think[s] that involvement and just simply presence—as in, visiting schools and interacting with students—is key for a superintendent to be successful.” She said that she shares many of the values that Perille does, and Boston Latin Academy senior Kevin DiCarlo expressed similar sentiments. “Perille has a similar view to my own on reforming the school systems in Boston, and I hope she will make BPS a more inclusive place and give students the opportunities and support that they need to excel,” he said.
To achieve these goals, Perille will use experience from her 16 years as CEO of EdVestors, a non-profit dedicated to urban school improvement in Boston. They have pioneered projects to improve art instruction and middle-grade math, both of which are featured prominently on their website. Perille said in her role at EdVestors, she spent countless hours collaborating directly with “classroom teachers and school leaders who are solving problems and coming up with solutions to common challenges across schools.”
Perille hopes to use these principles to guide her work in BPS, despite her critics’ concerns. According to a July Boston Globe article, many members of the BPS community worry about her lack of experience managing a large institution—at EdVestors she oversaw “fewer than two dozen employees,” while the Boston Public Schools has over 10,000.
Perille faces complex problems and ambitious goals for the future of Boston Public Schools, but she does not let her interim status stop her from moving forward. “We have to at least begin the conversation,” she said. “Our kids can’t afford to wait another year.”