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Brenda Cassellius Will Be The New Superintendent Of Boston Public Schools03:09
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Brenda Cassellius pauses between interviews at the Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury. (Max Larkin/WBUR)
Brenda Cassellius pauses between interviews at the Bolling Municipal Building in Roxbury. (Max Larkin/WBUR)

The Boston School Committee has voted to confirm Brenda Cassellius — a career educator who rose from paraprofessional to state commissioner, mostly in Minnesota — as the next superintendent of Boston Public Schools.

Cassellius was chosen by a 5-2 vote at a committee meeting in Dudley Square on Wednesday evening. Cassellius confirmed to WBUR Thursday morning that she will accept the post in Boston; she was also a finalist in the search to find a state superintendent for Michigan schools.

The pick came as a pleasant surprise to many teachers and activists at Wednesday night's meeting. They had come to complain about the lack of nurses in BPS, delays in securing a new contract for the Boston Teachers' Union — and about the lack of transparency in the superintendent search.

Mike Heishman is a former educator and a lifelong activist, who admired Cassellius's commitment to serving poor students and her principled skepticism of high-stakes standardized testing. "I'm here today filled with hope," Heishman said, visibly moved. "It feels so unusual!"

Cassellius stood out in the field of three finalists for preaching a gentler, more consensus-driven mode of district governance.

Her commitment to active listening meant a lot to Robert Jenkins, an advocate and school volunteer based in Mattapan: "She said, basically, they don't come to us — we've gotta go out to them, meaning students, teachers and the community."

In 2017, Cassellius won fans in Minnesota by working to include people across the state in a planned overhaul of the state's school-accountability plan.

In interviews, she also spoke of growing up in public housing and attending Head Start. Jenkins said he believes she best understands the urban context in which BPS students grow up: "Quality food, housing, health care, gentrification — she gets all that."

Two School Committee members, Lorna Rivera and Alexandra Oliver-Davila, gave their support to Marie Izquierdo, another finalist and the chief academic officer for Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Rivera said her vote was based, in part, on Izquierdo’s "proven track record" getting great academic performance out of the diverse students in Miami-Dade. But both Rivera and Oliver-Davila also cited Izquierdo’s background as well.

Oliver-Davila described the lack of Latinos and Latinas in positions of prominence in Boston and statewide as a source of “heartbreak.”

The third candidate, Oscar Santos, did not receive any votes.

The decision comes at the end of a process that began in the fall and culminated in a series of all-day public interviews last week.

Before the vote, each member of the school committee thanked Laura Perille, the outgoing interim superintendent, at length. Committee chair Mike Loconto said Perille promised him that her tenure would "not be a lost year," and he said it hasn't been. Perille oversaw moves to renovate and consolidate schools and to expand access to the entrance exam for Boston's most prestigious public high schools.

Cassellius will assume control of BPS at a sensitive moment. Following Walsh’s lead, district leadership is engaged in a two-front war against the district’s budget deficit. It's safe to say that Cassellius will be expected to lobby for additional state aid for city schools on Beacon Hill, even as she looks for ways to modernize the system of more than 120 schools spread throughout Boston.

There are constituencies clamoring for increased diversity at the exam schools, especially Boston Latin School, and among all the district's faculty and staff. And there are other initiatives that Cassellius may want to restart after they stalled under prior leadership, like a plan to rearrange school start times to better serve high school students.

For now, though, Cassellius said she's just excited to come to Boston after a career spent elsewhere: "There's such a brain trust here, a lot of people willing to dig into some of the difficult issues. ... It just felt like there was a readiness."

This segment aired on May 2, 2019.

Earlier Coverage:

Max Larkin Twitter Reporter, Edify
Max Larkin is a multimedia reporter for Edify, WBUR's education vertical.

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