BOSTON — As most of the students in the Boston Public Schools return to class Thursday, Superintendent Carol Johnson is starting her sixth year as head of the system — and she goes into it facing the toughest criticism of her tenure. She’s been praised for raising graduation rates and test scores, but lately her missteps have overshadowed her accomplishments.
So we recently spent part of a day with the superintendent to get a sense of her frame of mind and to talk about doubts about her leadership.
We start at school department headquarters at a morning meeting of the system’s new principals and headmasters. As Johnson welcomes them, she acknowledges some of the public dissatisfaction plaguing the Boston Public Schools.
“We are a system that’s not perfect,” Johnson says, “but we are working really hard this year to make transportation perfect.”
That’s a reference to chronically late school buses. Then there are the stalled teacher contract talks, an abandoned plan to relocate a school, and the controversial closings of others. Key city leaders, like the mayor, still support Johnson. But a city councilor and a group of parents want her out. They say the final straw was when she failed to discipline a headmaster arrested [who admitted to sufficient facts] for punching and choking his wife. Those all may be factors in why Johnson remembers her days as a lower-level administrator so fondly.
“I was a school principal,” she says. “It’s still probably my most favorite job because you’re right there close to the kids all the time. And that’s why it’s more fun than being superintendent.”
After Johnson’s meeting with the new principals, we leave downtown Boston and drive into the district. With Johnson behind the wheel and her spokesman, Matt Wilder, riding along, we head to the old Agassiz School in Jamaica Plain, which had been labeled “under-performing” by the state.
“There was a question about whether we could quickly turn things around,” Johnson explains, “and we decided that we would just close… and start from scratch.”
But the building is now reopening as two schools: a K-8 and a dual-language school for ninth-graders. A dozen under-performing Boston schools are being overhauled, some with modest changes and others, like Agassiz, with drastic ones. Johnson wants to check on the renovations, and on the way there I ask her if she feels that the public criticism of her has been fair.
“Well, I try to be very honest with myself about the things that we need to improve,” she says. “Students need to arrive at school on time. We have to own the fact that that didn’t happen last year and fix it. When you make a mistake in judgment, you have an obligation to review the procedures that you have in place, make changes. I don’t know any large urban school superintendent in America that hasn’t been criticized publicly, that hasn’t made mistakes. Sometimes the criticism gets mixed with politics, and so you just have to discern when it is fair and make sure that you respond appropriately.”
I also ask Johnson how she would defend some of her unpopular ideas that were later abandoned, like a proposal to move Boston Latin Academy from Dorchester to Hyde Park.
“We’re going to come up with some options that people think are great and other people think are terrible,” she says. “I think we shouldn’t necessarily say, ‘Well, we can’t put anything out there because people might be offended by it.’ ”
“I think for people who’ve been critical of you they feel like it’s become this collection of about-faces,” I add.
“Yes,” Johnson replies, “but I do feel like if we never put something out, listen to the community and made changes, we’d be criticized for never, ever changing our mind, that everything is fixed in stone and that we’re not willing to listen.”
The Agassiz School, near Forest Hills, used to have a gloomy interior. But in the past few months crews have brightened it up; they’ve installed air conditioning, Wi-Fi and Corian countertops, and repainted from a pink that many parents said they hated to shades of cream and cranberry and fern green that the families themselves picked.
“When parents come in, we want our facilities to look like places that they would choose for their children,” Johnson says. “I mean, we want every school to look attractive in that way.”
Johnson also uses the visit to glad-hand, greeting school administrators and construction crews and praising them for the work they’ve done in just a few months.
Next stop: UP Academy in South Boston, a charter school housed in the former Gavin Middle School. Before we go inside, we sit in Johnson’s car and talk about the incident that has led to calls for her resignation: her decision to not fire or even suspend a headmaster after he assaulted his wife. Johnson has since apologized and says she should have acted more aggressively rather than rely on Rodney Peterson’s word that his wife didn’t intend to press charges. I ask her if she feels that she failed personally in handling this incident.
“This was a learning experience for me, no doubt,” Johnson says. “I think that those of us who work in public education tend to be trusting of people. I think the lessons learned have to do with feeling sometimes taken advantage of.”
“Can I interpret that to mean you feel that you were taken advantage of by Rodney Peterson?” I ask.
“I think so,” Johnson says, “because I trusted what he said. But the larger lesson is that we need to have a set of procedures in place that we act on every time consistently.”
Before the Peterson incident, the Boston Public School system didn’t have guidelines for how to deal with employees arrested outside of school. It now does: Employees facing allegations of serious misconduct are placed on administrative leave and investigated. But why would a longtime administrator like Johnson need a formal policy to guide her in this kind of case?
She explains: “I personally have just not had a lot of experience with incidents that happen outside of school. Lot of experience with things that happen in school. When something happens for someone outside of school, it was just very different. But now we have a set of procedures in place.”
On our way into UP Academy, we run into a woman and a girl coming out, and Johnson asks them if they’re trying to register for school. Susan Attardo, of South Boston, explains that her 12-year-old niece, Rachel Lewis, is No. 66 on UP Academy’s wait-list for seventh grade. This is a downside of Boston’s lottery approach to assigning students to schools: Kids often don’t get into their school of choice. And while it’s good news that enrollment numbers are up in the Boston public system, that means many students are stuck on wait-lists.
Johnson asks Attardo if her niece is on any other wait-lists, and Attardo explains that she’s on several — but the only school so far that’s offered the girl a seat is the McCormack in Dorchester, which wasn’t even on her wish list.
“So I’m a little upset about that,” Attardo says.
“Have you been over to visit to the McCormack?” Johnson asks.
“No,” Attardo replies, “but I know a few lunch mothers and they didn’t have anything positive to say.”
“Oh my goodness,” Johnson says. “Well, we do have a new principal at the McCormack. He’s really trying to turn both the Dever and McCormack around. We also have a new grant at the McCormack.”
Johnson gives her best sales pitch, but Attardo — who may not have realized she was talking with the superintendent of schools — is still skeptical. So Johnson takes her number and promises to look into her niece’s wait-list problem. The complicated school assignment process is one of the many challenges of running a system with 57,000 students and 128 schools.
Inside UP Academy, which started classes last week, the principal, Amanda Gardner, takes us on a tour, stopping at a seventh-grade English class. As we watch, Johnson turns to me and points out something unique at this charter school: When class is over, the teacher will leave the classroom and another teacher will come in and begin teaching the students. So rather than kids changing rooms, the teachers change rooms and the kids stay put.
Gardner explains why: “In a lot of schools, a lot of time is lost in passing periods and that sort of thing from class to class. So here our students stay with their homerooms for most of the day, and then we have breaks and other downtime built in.”
Before Johnson and I head our separate ways, I come back to the Peterson issue because that’s the misstep that got her critics calling for her head. She didn’t just fail to discipline him, they point out; she also wrote a supportive letter about him to the judge who sentenced him. I ask Johnson if that showed a basic lapse in her leadership.
And then we wait in silence for 35 seconds.
When Johnson finally answers, she returns to her mantra about establishing protocols, saying in part that “what we’ve done is we’ve reviewed the procedures that were available to us and those that weren’t in place.”
Later, by phone, I ask Johnson’s spokesman, Matt Wilder, what he made of that lengthy silence. He says Johnson was just carefully composing her words. She’s admitted she made a mistake, he says, and doesn’t want to dwell on it. And, he adds: “With all due respect, she’s not going to let the media or anyone else distract her from her core work.”
And that was the mind-frame I sensed in Superintendent Carol Johnson this new school year: chastened, but determined not to be hounded out of her job by critics who don’t believe, as she does, that leaders can err, learn from their errors, and still lead effectively.
There is one bright spot on the horizon for Johnson: the school department and city’s teachers union both say they’re hopeful that this weekend they’ll resolve their two-year-long contract dispute.