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Carol Johnson Reflects On Six Years As Superintendent Of Boston Public Schools

In April, Boston Public School Superintendent Carol Johnson announced that she would step down. Radio Boston co-host Meghna Chakrabarti spoke with Johnson about her time at the helm of the city’s school system.

Meghna Chakrabarti: Looking back over the past six years, it’s been a time of tremendous change for the city and for the schools as well. What do you think is your greatest accomplishment in those six years?

Carol Johnson, in a still from her retirement video. (Boston Public Schools)

Carol Johnson, in a still from her retirement video. (Boston Public Schools)

Carol Johnson: Well, I think of it not as sort of one thing. I would say that in every aspect of the work that we’ve done, we’ve really focused on these twin goals of making sure are obviously more Advanced Placement courses, more opportunities for students to take more rigorous curriculum — things like that — but also trying to equitable in that, making sure that the resources are distributed in a way that support all students’ learning, taking schools that had traditionally underperformed and making sure that they perform at higher levels — particularly in some neighborhoods of the city.

What do you make of finally getting a new school assignment system?

I’m really excited about the new student assignment choice that was made. I think that it’s really going to help us improve quality. I think that’s the major thing. The fact of the matter is this whole process could have been very polarizing, it could have been a negative process. I think it was a very positive process — not that we all agreed, but I think that we created the forum and the space for people to express their feelings, to express their experiences and to come up with a solution that not everybody thinks is great but I think that moves us in the right direction in terms of focusing on quality educational experiences for all children.

Given the fact that the Boston Public Schools system is $1 billion enterprise, what do you think is really standing in the way of really getting high quality schools or vastly improved schools in every neighborhood in Boston?

Obviously, a lot of this depends on making sure that we have great teachers in every classroom. We have a new teaching evaluation system. We’re monitoring that closely; this is the first year of its full implementation. I think we’re seeing some results from having a strong teaching evaluation system. It’s not perfect yet, but I think we’re learning what it takes to have high quality evaluations and to work in partnership with teachers so that they can improve learning.

While the district has made some significant strides forward in terms of attendance and reducing the drop-out rate and test scores across the district — on the other hand, Boston as a whole continues to lag behind the rest of the state, on average in terms of test scores. What do you think remains to be done that you couldn’t get to during your time here?

What I would say is that if you look at our turnaround schools, you will see that Boston’s progress in our turnaround schools has outpaced the rest of the state. Commissioner Chester and Gov. Patrick have both pointed out that schools like Orchard Gardens have a faster progress than many of the other turnaround schools across the state.

I was just at Orchard Gardens last week, and it’s phenomenal — without a doubt, it’s an incredible place. But what I came away with is that the things they were able to do there were only possible because it was named a turnaround school — more authority and ability to make really deep changes that maybe other schools, other principals don’t have.

I think the fact that we have demonstrated that when principals are given additional resources, they’re given flexibility and autonomy — as they have been in our turnaround schools — and we put strong leaders in place, we can produce extraordinary results. What’s exciting is every time I talk to principals in some of these schools, they’re very excited to have the opportunity to make these changes.

Are teachers as excited?

If you go into Orchard Gardens or any of these schools, they embrace this change. Now, obviously there are schools and there are educators around the commonwealth and in Boston too who might not embrace this change. But I think that what the reality is is there is real competition in the marketplace, and parents can and will make other choices. And the only way that we are going to be successful as a district is if parents continue to see us as really a viable option, and they continue to choose us.

If you look at our data, though, on English language learners, my first year here the graduation rate  for English language learners was 38.8 percent. It was just sad that it was that low. Now it’s still not at 80 percent, which is at least our first-level goal, but it’s over 59 percent.

Over the course of this conversation, I’ve heard you refer to your job and BPS as “we” — it’s very indicative about the inclusive perspective you take on the enterprise of educating students in Boston. For you, personally, what has the experience of being the superintendent of this district been like?

I’ve always loved my jobs. I’ve loved every job I’ve had. I think that I’m so very fortunate to work in a field that matters. I’ve had an extraordinary experience in Boston. It’s a great city. I’ve learned a lot. I couldn’t me more fortunate than to work with mayor who so deeply believes in public education and believes that it is at the heart of having a great city.

Have there been days when I thought, “Oh my gosh, what is this?” Yes, of course, there are days when I’m disappointed in myself, I’m disappointed in some action we’ve taken, I’m concerned about the feedback on some recommendation we made that hasn’t been positive. Of course I have those days like anybody else, but overall I’ve had an absolutely fabulous and wonderful experience in Boston. I love Boston, and I will also cherish and treasure the opportunity to have been superintendent here.


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Hosts Meghna Chakrabarti and Anthony Brooks introduce us to newsmakers, big thinkers and artists and bring us stories of relevance to Bostonians here and around the region. Live every weekday at 3.

WBUR's Sacha Pfeiffer is co-hosting Radio Boston while Meghna Chakrabarti is on maternity leave.

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