The search for Boston’s next superintendent is drawing to a close as the first of two marathon interviews with the pair of local finalists took place Thursday.
It was Somerville Public Schools Superintendent Mary Skipper’s turn in the spotlight first. She responded to queries from multiple groups consisting of community advocates; teachers and principals; parents and students; and finally, school committee members during all-day public interviews broadcast online.
Skipper, a Dorchester resident and parent of three, made the case that as she's risen through the ranks of public education, she has tried to put students first.
"It is not an easy job...you get a lot of different things [thrown] at you," she said. "But in your mind you have to ask, 'what is the most important?' And in my mind, students are the most important — everything else is around that goal."
The 54-year-old has served as the superintendent of the Somerville Public Schools since 2015, a position she said has given her insight into forming community partnerships and working with a diverse student body, including many English learners.
Skipper, who grew up in Arlington and Somerville, served as a teacher, principal and administrator in the Boston Public Schools for over 18 years. But, if hired as superintendent, she said she would come back determined to re-learn the needs of the district today.
Her years as a teacher and principal of the TechBoston Academy — which she helped launch in 2002 and is notable for its high graduation rates and technology focus — were “really happy,” Skipper said, but she was driven into administration in 2013 after seeing the “barriers” that faced her students.
"I wanted the opportunity to look at a system from above, and to see how it worked," she said. "I became a supe because I saw things that I wanted to change, and I wanted to be able to work with the people that I knew could help make that change."
Throughout Thursday’s interviews, parents and educators repeatedly asked Skipper about her final two years in Boston, which were marked by her success in driving down high school dropout rates and the struggles of the city’s open-enrollment high schools in the years since.
Skipper declined to comment on more recent history, saying, “I’ve been gone seven years … I am not going to make assumptions about what is and isn't going on.”
But she said in both Boston and Somerville, her staff has found that dropout cases are often predictable but preventable — as long as schools keep in touch with students and “build out true educational options” for them.
When pressed by BPS parent Tanya Nixon-Silberg and others, Skipper acknowledged that — despite her long history with the district — she does not look or sound like the majority of students in its classrooms today. Nearly half of BPS students speaks a language other than English at home, and over 80% are students of color.
Skipper said she tried to diversify administration in Somerville, and would do the same in Boston.
“As a white leader,” Skipper said, “it is imperative for me to build a team that is diverse, talented, that's culturally proficient, linguistically proficient” to build trust and common cause with families of color.
Skipper also stressed that she would pursue a whole-student approach with the students hardest hit by the pandemic — for example, English learners whose literacy progression was set back during remote learning, or newcomers to the country whose formal schooling has undergone a “major interruption.”
For that latter group, Skipper said, “oftentimes, we just address [them] academically, but it really has to be done academically and social-emotionally,” by enlisting bilingual counselors and other supports.
Skipper — who remained calm and composed during multiple rounds of questions beginning at 10 in the morning and lasting into the evening, with several short breaks -- warmed toward the end of the panel interview with students and families.
When asked what drew her to education — and to pursue this challenging position — she recalled fondly the relationships she built with students at TechBoston, and how those relationships endure decades later.
“Jobs are jobs,” Skipper said. “This isn’t a job. The work we do in the Boston Public Schools is a calling and a mission to support our students and families.”
The finalist interviews resume Friday morning with Tommy Welch, a Boston Public Schools regional superintendent for schools serving Charlestown, East Boston and North End, who has been with the district since 2015.
The appointed seven-member Boston School Committee is scheduled to vote on its choice next week.