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Boston School Superintendent Calls Her Exit ‘Bittersweet’

BOSTON — This Friday, Boston Public Schools will close their doors for the summer and bid farewell to the district’s superintendent.

Carol Johnson, who has led the city’s schools since 2007, is stepping down next month and moving back to Memphis, Tenn. Johnson told WBUR’s Bob Oakes that leaving is “bittersweet,” but the right decision.

Carol Johnson: When you keep a schedule that feels like 24/7, 365 you kind of look forward to it. There’s gotta be a different way to do this. There’s gotta be other things that I can contribute without the intensity that I work. So I’m hopeful to do some other things, but not necessarily at the intense level that I work today.

Bob Oakes: You had a lot of success in Boston. Graduation rates are at the highest level ever, 66 percent. Dropout rates have fallen to 6 percent. You’ve increased art and music programs. What are you most proud of?

What I’m proud of is that we have increased access and opportunity for lots of kids who otherwise are new to this country, are non-English speaking, families are poor, who are first-generation college goers.

And now we have to sort of take it to the next level beyond access and opportunity because you’re giving kids more access and opportunity to advanced lacement courses, but we have to make sure that they are graduating from high school ready to do college-level work.

Of all that you’ve done, or all you’ve tried to do, what’s the most vexing problem that remains unsolved or undersolved?

It’s partly the same answer. I’m proud of the progress we’ve made with closing the achievement gap. I’m sad about the fact that we haven’t closed the achievement gap. So I would say both. You never feel like you’re done. I’m proud that we raised the graduation rate, but really, we’re still under 80 percent students graduating in a four-year period. We still have much more work to do in getting kids ready for vocational and technical areas. That’s an area where I wish we could have moved faster.

In terms of the professionals you work with, during your tenure you were engaged in a long set of contact negotiations with the Boston Teachers Union. The talks ran on for two years, and in the end you were largely unable to get the longer school day you wanted. Do you think the union stymied some of the reform plans that you’ve had over the years?

I think that the teachers union supported time, but they wanted us to pay for it at a rate that would not have been sustainable or fiscally responsible. So I think that what we’ve done is found new and creative ways to extend time through the summer, through after school during spring and winter breaks so that students are getting more of the time that they need.

Forgive me, but you successfully avoided talking about the teachers union itself. Was dealing with the union at least occasionally frustrating?

Here’s what I would frame it: the world has changed. The demands for excellence for all, not for some, that demand requires us to revisit how we’ve organized schools, how we’ve organized teaching, and how we use time. So it’s really time, people, and resources we have to revisit.

So are you saying the union is stuck in the past?

Well, I think that the leadership of the teachers union has to work in partnership with the school district to address the needs of students for the 21st century. The union has to recognize that business as usual is not the place we can find ourselves. I think teachers understand that. And I think our teachers are working extraordinarily hard and I’m proud of the success that we’ve had.

You’ve taken a few knocks a few times over the years for plans that you put forth on various subjects that you had to reevaluate after taking some public and some administrative criticism, so to speak — including the school reassignment proposal and/or your plans to close or consolidate a number of schools. Is there anything that you would have done differently to get your agenda passed, in hindsight?

I can think of numerous things I could have done differently and better. On the other hand, I also believe this: that it’s OK to promote and propose something that the community says, ‘No, I reject that. We reject that. That’s not what we want.’ You do have to be careful that you spend enough time talking with the community, but at the end of the day, you come out with an advocacy position that’s all about the children. Not about the adults.

You said once that you never wanted to be a superintendent, that you always loved teaching. Do you think that you might end up back in a classroom as a teacher?

You know, every time I go into a third or fourth grade classroom, I’m tempted, I have to admit. I love what I do. But, having said that, my favorite grade of all to teach is fourth grade. And yes, I could see myself teaching fourth grade again. I would love that, too.

Any advice for the city in choosing the next school superintendent? You know what the system needs, you know how the city works. What does the city need in terms of the next superintendent?

Boston is a great city and I really don’t think you’ll have any trouble attracting great talent. Obviously, people will want to know who is the mayor and they’ll want to know about the school committee because a lot of times my colleagues, when I talk to them, they want to work with a supportive school committee. Because this is hard work and so you have to work with people who want to be collaborative with you, who want to make a difference.

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