New superintendent visits neighborhood elementary schools

New superintendent of Boston Public Schools Dr. Carol Johnson started work on Aug. 27, and showed up in Dorchester the following two days to visit the John Marshall and William Monroe Trotter elementary schools. Both schools are "Superintendent Schools" - part of a top ten list of schools that are at risk of state intervention due to low student performance in MCAS testing. Four of these schools are in Dorchester, one is in Mattapan.

"The school is very excited because they did make [Adequate Yearly Progress] this year," said Johnson of the Marshall. "They're not in good standing yet with the state, but they're making progress. The teachers talked about how hard they worked."

A provision in the new Boston Teachers' Union contract created flexibility in these schools so change could happen quicker. The principal has authority to hire 75 percent of all vacancies, salary incentives are given to teachers, and more money is spent on teacher development, to name a few special features.

Johnson said the Marshall has had success targeting young learners prior to entering Superintendent status, but teachers there told her they still needed more computers and technology for fourth and fifth grade classes.

Another feature of a Superintendent School, a status also given to the William E. Russell, Winthrop and Solomon Lewenberg elementary schools, is a full-time Family & Community Outreach Coordinator. FCOC's have been pushed by the Boston Parent Organizing Network in recent years and jumped from a total of 17 in BPS last school year, to 31 starting this fall.

Johnson's short-list seems to include greater parent involvement, beefing up art programs and eliminating out-of-school suspension. All three priorities line up with what parents are asking for, according to Caprice Taylor-Mendez, director of BPON. Taylor-Mendez is particularly enthused about Johnson's community involvement record.

"We've heard from our contacts in the communities where she came from in Minneapolis and Memphis," said Taylor-Mendez. "A taxi cab driver was sad that she left, a grocery store clerk was sad for the loss… Payzant was in leadership for 10 years. In his last five he worked in partnership with the community, but the new superintendent clearly has that as a priority from day one."

Similar to BPON's focus on educating parents to advocate for changes within BPS, Johnson wants to teach parents to become marketers for their neighborhood schools.

"I always say the monopoly is over," said Johnson. "You have to sell parents on why their kids should walk down the street to the school in the neighborhood. Rich and poor parents can choose to send their kids to charter schools, to private schools [or] to METCO. We have to stay competitive."

She also said she would be looking to parents to tell BPS what's working and what is not.

While Johnson did not commit to any specific changes - citing the fact that she is still new to the job and learning the unique attributes of BPS - she did express certain priorities of her own.

"I'm a big fan of finding ways to engage young people, whether that's math, music or arts," said Johnson. "Sometimes we have to have other hooks to get kids to come to school every day. There are a lot of things we could be doing that can't be quantified."

As an example, Johnson cited a certain technology company's tendency to hire graduates with music majors. The study of music, it is reported, has a similar foundation in logic as do the studies of math and technology.

Another tactic Johnson is bringing to the table is a priority on keeping kids in school, even when they're being punished for bad behavior. It is not BPS policy yet, but in Memphis City Schools where Johnson was superintendent for four years, out of school suspensions are rare.

"We didn't want them to get sent home for minor infractions," she said. "We wanted the kids in school every day."

Overall, Johnson is very interested in collecting data, at the individual school and system wide levels.

"The power of the work was really in the data," she said of Memphis City Schools' Positive Behavior Systems program. Recording every incident in each school in Memphis allowed educators to spot problematic behavior patterns in specific children and to refer them to behavior specialists or other programs in the school.

When asked what new challenges she faced, issues in BPS her background had not prepared her for, Johnson was candid.

"I've never worked with an appointed board," she said. "This will be new to me, dealing with the connections between the mayor's office and the schools, but I've been impressed with the mayor's commitment."

Johnson said she is preparing a plan of action, with special focus on the superintendent schools. "It won't be overnight," she warned, but she would consult the community. "I think it's really important for me to get out of 26 Court St. and get a sense of the voice out there."

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