Boston Meets New Schools Head

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The woman tapped to head Boston's public schools come September is staying in town this week to meet with community leaders and educators.

Carol Johnson, who's currently superintendent of Memphis City Schools, flew into Boston yesterday, when city officials introduced her as their choice for schools Superintendent. WBUR's Bianca Vazquez Toness reports on her media unveiling.TEXT OF STORY:

BIANCA VAZQUEZ TONESS: After an 18-month search for a superintendent, which included one embarrassing public rejection, city officials were beaming as they introduced Carol Johnson, their latest pick.

GREGORY GROOVER: You will find a very dynamic educator who works hard, who believes in her children.

TONESS: Reverend Gregory Groover led the selection committee.


GROOVER: Who affirms her teachers, who supports her principals, who honors parents as genuine, real, equal partners.

TONESS: Carol Johnson is considered a star among urban school superintendents. In Memphis, where she's worked for the last four years, she's credited with helping about 80 schools get off Tennessee's warning list. She told the crowd that Boston's district, with its high percentage of students living in poverty, isn't much different than Memphis.

CAROL JOHNSON: Today is a day where there is no more important work in America than educating all, not just some of the children of this nation. (Applause) I believe public education opens the door for students regardless of race, or income, or family background, or disability to achieve goals they would otherwise never achieve without it.

TONESS: Johnson is African American, grew up in Tennessee, and studied in segregated schools. She spent most of her nearly 40-year-career in Minneapolis. That's until Memphis schools wrestled her away in 2003, and now, after months of asking, Boston has wrestled her away again.

In yesterday's press conference, it was clear Johnson has some different opinions than Boston schools' ultimate head honcho, Mayor Tom Menino. For one thing, Johnson sees a place for charter schools.

JOHNSON: Sometimes we have to experiment with other models. Most of the children in Boston, in Memphis in Minneapolis will go to the regular public schools in this nation. And we have to fix them so they get the kind of education that they need. I think in the midst of doing that, we should look at other ways of addressing the needs of the diverse populations that we have because not all students learn the same way.

TONESS: Johnson also says she's in favor of incentives for teachers who work in challenging schools and rewards for those who get good results.
And what about those challenging schools? In Memphis, Johnson overhauled ones that were chronically failing. Under the so-called "Fresh Start" program, Johnson removed the principal, made all the teachers re-apply for their jobs, and let the new principal hand-pick staff.

Reporters asked if Johnson expected to do the same in Boston, where at least nine schools face state-takeover because of poor performance.

JOHNSON: I expect to hit the ground listening. And I expect to make sure that I understand the environment and what is going on and what is needed. I always think that when you take an action like fresh-starting schools, that really should be the last action. You should have intervened, you should have supported teachers. There are so many other steps you should have taken before you get to that place.

TONESS: In Memphis, a district twice the size of Boston, it took Carol Johnson a year and seven months before she started overhauling schools. Boston may have to brace itself for a fresh start.

This program aired on June 20, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.