Empty seats were hard to come by as Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius geared up for one of the last stops on her community engagement tour. More than 100 students and parents squeezed into the second floor library of the English High School in Jamaica Plain to speak with the new superintendent.
After a quick presentation and video, it was time for the crowd to take the mic. Parents were eager to voice their concerns. It didn’t take long for the common themes to emerge.
"What concrete steps are you taking to recruit diverse talent?" asked one parent. Which was quickly followed by several questions about exam schools and access to the ISEE, the admission test the district uses as part of the application process for the city's three exam schools. Parents wanted to know more about how to access free test prep courses. And multiple people had questions about district plans to address the fact that there isn't enough diversity in the school system's more rigorous course offerings like Advanced Placement classes.
"We’re getting to the point where there are some schools where the whole class is children who are white, and there are no black or brown kids in the class," said a BPS mom.
Cassellius took the time to address each question. She also included personal stories in a few of her answers to reassure the crowd that she understands where a lot of parents in the room that night were coming from.
"I know what it’s like to be a single mom for ten years and to work two jobs and be on WIC [the federal assistance program for Women, Infants and Children] and live in public housing and how hard that is on families," said Cassellius. "So I know the lived experience and how difficult that is."
Cassellius's inaugural community engagement tour this fall took her to roughly two dozen town hall style forums and more than 150 school buildings over the span of four months. The goal is two-fold. Cassellius said the tour helped her get to know her new city better. But she also plans to use the feedback she gathers in a strategic plan that will guide the district's priorities over the next few years. Initial versions of that are expected in January. Cassellius said, while she fielded a lot of questions from the school community during this time, most of them boiled down to two main themes.
"Equity and opportunity just rises to the top for parents. They want high quality schools in every neighborhood," she explained. "They want to see our high schools be successful."
Community members that have gone to these meetings say they have different vibe from the ones held by Cassellius’s predecessors, Laura Perille and Tommy Chang.
"She understands what it means to live with a single mother who has to go to work, living in public housing, using food stamps," said Geralde Gabeau, the executive director of the Immigrant Family Services Institute in Roslindale. "You know, walking in those shoes means a lot to us."
Gabeau said for parents in her community there’s a sense of cautious optimism. They've liked what they've heard in these meetings. They also realize that new superintendents typically come in with good intentions but often get caught in city politics and bureaucracy and, ultimately, have a hard time making meaningful change. That sentiment was echoed by parent Travis Marshall, who has two kids in the district.
"School communities have not really felt heard for a number of years in Boston," said Marshall. "Whether that’s the closure of the Mattahunt or the West Roxbury Education Complex or even the start time debacle a couple of years ago."
He said community events like this are a needed good faith effort, even if it's still unclear how it will all play out in actual policy. Others, like longtime Boston education advocate Barbara Fields, said there was nothing exceptional about this tour.
"For those of us who have been around a long time there is nothing new for us," she said.
Fields is a member of the Black Educators Alliance of Massachusetts and she’s the former director of the BPS Office of Equity. She said while it felt like Cassellius was listening, the meetings were too short, only two hours long. She was also critical of the meeting structure. The district separated the crowd into groups to talk about issues for a good chunk of the event, but then limited their public presentations to just a few talking points. Fields felt like that downplayed the topics that are important to her community.
"In the black community, I know the real concern is the closure and merger of schools. The lack of access to quality schools," said Fields. "It has come up but I don't think as strongly as I know is felt here."
As Cassellius reflected on this semester long effort, she said meeting parents around the area helped her get to know a city that is still very new to her. She added, visiting all 125 schools was equally important.
"When you go from one school to the next school to the next school you get such a great snapshot in your head of what schools have and what they don’t have," said Cassellius. "It really gives me a good sense of what the priorities should be."
She said that part of the tour gave her a better idea of where the haves and have nots are in the district. A factor that she said will be important as she continues making headway on the highly anticipated district strategic plan next month.
This segment aired on December 11, 2019.