Superintendent plans changes in leadership roles

After her first 100 days in office, the woman in charge of Boston Public Schools -- who says she "hit the ground listening" -- outlined a plan last week for change in Boston Public Schools. Superintendent Carol Johnson aims to increase accountability, target drop out rates and explore new school models and extra classes for high achieving students, all while keeping an eye on the bottom line: the budget.

She also offered hints about what the future may hold for busing as fuel prices rise and for the No Child Left Behind Act if a Democrat wins the Oval office.

"It's less of a focus on geography and more of a focus on accountability and academic achievement," Johnson said of her administrative changes, which will divide the superintendents to oversee five types of schools instead of the three zones currently used. A new chief academic officer will focus on improving teaching and learning.

One academic superintendent each will be assigned to assist principals in high schools, middle and K-8 schools, elementary schools, alternative schools and pilot schools. "Basically it was difficult to discern who was accountable for middle schools," she said. "I had three different people responsible."

"It's cautiously optimistic, because in my mind it's a very ambitious plan," said Ricardo Neal, director of Freedom House. "But there's not been an announcement of any appointments. Until we see who's appointed, and their levels of experience, I don't think the community can fully embrace the plan."

Johnson insisted the move away from the current three deputy superintendent structure doesn't presage an elimination of Boston Public School's three zone school choice system, but with skyrocketing transportation costs linked to the costs of gas and labor, she also didn't completely rule it out.

"In order to answer the mayor's questions, I do have to look at that," Johnson said. "I certainly want to find some efficiencies, but I also want to respect parent choice."

Another way to reduce costs, she said, might be to look at the cost of busing students who are outside the Boston Public School system, including private school students who are sometimes bused farther than any BPS student would be under the three zone system.

"We need to look at who we're transporting at what cost," she said. Her plans for changing the complicated busing system are still in development.

For Neal - and many other education reform advocates - closing the achievement gap is job one for Johnson. It's a call Johnson says she's heard loud and clear from many parents and teacher while touring the system and prompted her proposal to create an office focused solely on that problem that will report directly to her.

"I think the superintendent did a really good job capturing what she's been hearing, putting together what some of the concerns were," said Kim Janey from Massachusetts Advocates for Children. "The question comes down to how the district implements this, and of course the budget implications."

With BPS running a $12.8 million deficit, Johnson is cautious about saying when changes will actually occur, although a new chief academic officer is likely to be chosen soon.

"We are going to cost this out," Johnson said. "What we're trying to do is, for this year, stay cost neutral. We need to do it as soon as possible, but I see this as a three to five year plan."

The plan also calls for restructuring the Special Education department and launching new efforts to help English Language Learners (ELL) transition into the general student population; more English as a second language teachers would be added and the Newcomers Assessment and Counseling Center that places and supports students would be expanded.

Many of her new ideas are based on the results of the Parthenon Study, which was released late last year and presented in community forums. ELL students entering during high school and "substantially separate" special ed. students made up 30 percent of all BPS dropouts, according to the study, and could be identified as high-risk in their freshman year. Another 44 percent of all dropouts in the study could have been identified just as early through attendance rates, failing grades, or being over age.

To stem the dropout tide, which has gotten worse over recent years and allowed a scant 58 percent four-year graduation rate in 2006, Johnson is proposing an expansion of after-school "credit-recovery" programs that allow students to make-up work in core courses they failed.

Johnson also tagged improvements for high-performing students, citing a need for BPS to be more competitive against charter, private and parochial schools. In addition to better marketing, her plan includes expanding school choices into new areas such as international baccalaureate programs, Montessori elementary schools and new pilot schools.

The background, or some might say, the elephant in the room, is the federal No Child Left Behind Act, MCAS testing and the federal and state funds that are tied to them. Some would say they've improved performance, others might say it has caused teachers to 'teach to the test' to the detriment of all subjects outside of reading, writing and math. Asked if she expects changes to the No Child Left Behind Act under a new presidential administration, Johnson sounded a careful but hopeful note.

"In my conversations with Senator Kennedy, I think where he and I do agree is there are some elements of No Child Left Behind that are helpful," Johnson said. "But the fact is, they're demanding that you test students without regard to the fact that you have students that are in different places. What the law doesn't do is reflect the diversity of the students. I think there will be some fixing of the parts that don't work so well. I think to some extent being held accountable for all the students is a bi-partisan issue."