Interview time for BPS finalists: Izquierdo and Cassellius make bids for superintendent gig

Boston school leaders and community members will be interviewing three finalists – Marie Izquierdo, Brenda Cassellius, and Oscar Santos – for the position of Boston Public Schools superintendent this week.

On Monday, Izquierdo — the chief academic officer of Miami-Dade County Public Schools — became the first of the three to submit to full-day public interviews for the job.

The daughter of immigrants and a first-generation college graduate, Izquierdo put herself forward as a fierce and experienced advocate for students, especially those who have historically been marginalized. But she also evoked skepticism from advocates who felt she described her view of public education as “corporate.”

Here are four top-line takeaways on Marie Izquierdo.

• Izquierdo say she’s “realistic” — and not shy. For a candidate, she was notably candid. (She said she has “a pretty big mouth — and I tend to use it when I need it.”) In a morning panel, she lightly rapped the district for touting its rising graduation rates even as they ought to know that many poor and minority BPS graduates don’t necessarily thrive in college, as the Boston Foundation has found.

Izquierdo described the idea of all students going on to college as unrealistic. Instead, she said she’d like to offer BPS students “multiple pathways” to happy lives after high school, including a means to get industry credentials through work with area businesses.

• She would tighten budgets now, and try to grow them later. Izquierdo said she has learned how to lobby — for more funding and less testing — in Florida’s capital of Tallahassee. She described the state’s long-term disinvestment in Boston schools as “criminal,” and said as superintendent, she’d be prepared to support the PROMISE Act, the ambitious funding bill with Walsh’s stamp of approval.

But she also endorsed Walsh’s ten-year structural plan for the district, called “BuildBPS.” By now, that plan will involve closing at least three schools and displacing two more down the road. She even went further than current officials typically do, saying that the district’s physical plant — 125 schools for 53,000 or so students — is simply “too big.”

She noted that the district has lost 13,000 or so students to the charter sector, and the only way to win them back is to improve the “portfolio” of schools by consolidation, cost-cutting, and “lots of branding.”

• She’s a fan of data. Izquierdo sold herself as a data-driven leader on both academic and operational questions. It’s something of a catchphrase of hers in Miami-Dade: “data is our superpower.” She described how, under her supervision, Miami-Dade set up a hierarchy to better target resources at those that were, in her word, “fragile.” And she credited that system with the slow eradication of schools in the county graded as “failing” by Florida state officials.

Using similar tools, Izquierdo said she imagined a future in which Boston, “the city that birthed public education, [could become] the first urban school district to effectively close the achievement gap” between rich and poor students, or white students and students of color.
That is a tall order, given that one recent report found that nationally, those gaps have barely budged in a half-century — but this is, after all, a job interview.

Izquierdo’s data-first approach put off some observers, including Monty Neill, a long-time anti-testing activist and expert who attended the morning meeting. Izquierdo did not speak in support of performance-based assessment, which some see as a more targeted and humane form of student evaluation.  Neill described Izquierdo’s pitch as “very corporate and job-oriented,” adding “I don’t think she has a program to enable students to grow into fully-engaged citizens.”

• She may not be from here — but she says she’s determined to learn. Izquierdo described this position as not a “plum job,” but as the challenge of a lifetime. (That’s why she’d be willing to move her family out of Miami’s warm weather, she joked.) But she promised that, if chosen, she’d try to learn a new city. Not an easy task for a city as clannish as Boston.  In her closing statement Monday morning, Izquierdo said that though she would take certain lessons from her time in Florida, “I won’t come with pre-conceived solutions. I will listen to you, I will learn, and I will lead.”

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Tuesday was Day 2 of the final phase of the search for the new superintendent of Boston Public Schools, and the floor belonged to Dr. Brenda Cassellius, a 51-year-old career educator and administrator. She was Minnesota’s commissioner of education until last January, when Mark Dayton, the governor who appointed her, stepped down. She said she decided to pursue this position because she has been looking for “a district that’s ready to move the agenda for vulnerable kids” — and Boston could be that district.

But she’s also a finalist for the top education job in Michigan, and she interviewed for that post on Monday.

While Cassellius’s resume shows that she has held numerous educational positions, she has not been superintendent of a large urban district — despite being a finalist in the search for the Minneapolis superintendency in 2016. Following are four takes from her day to answer questions:

• She said she’s tough (and can handle the politics). She said she has been told that her “warm and fuzzy” act won’t work outside the Midwest—only to find out that it does win people over to her side. But beneath the “Minnesota nice” appearance, she said, is the “really thick skin” you’d expect from a passionate amateur hockey player.

In response to questions about Boston Mayor Marty Walsh’s influence over the district policy, Cassellius made reference to the fact that her most recent job experience was an eight-year political appointment. As education commissioner, Casselius worked with Dayton on a number of initiatives, including building teacher diversity (that’s still very much a work in progress) and expanding pre-kindergarten. She also sparred with Republican lawmakers in 2017 as she tried to pass a plan that de-emphasized standardized testing in judgments of school quality. It’s proof, she said, that she can work within a political context and still pursue her own goals of helping vulnerable students.

• She’s down on high-stakes testing. For an education official, Cassellius spoke frankly—and negatively—about standardized tests. “If it doesn’t help students learn better, or teachers teach better, I say don’t do it.” Cassellius is not alone in deciding, in her words, that test-based accountability “hasn’t worked.” But she was unusually vociferous, saying that “I don’t think that tests ought to be used for individual, high-stakes [decisions] for children - ever.”

That said, Cassellius acknowledged that state officials, not district superintendents, set testing priorities, and collaborative leadership involves “agreeing to things you don’t agree with.”

• In her view, public education has more responsibilities than we might think. Related to her skepticism of tests is her notion that schools represent more than just educational day care, especially in poor and urban communities. “Historically, we’ve coordinated the academic pieces,” she said, “but we haven’t really taken the responsibility to coordinate all of the other social services pieces.”

• Rather than come in with a detailed plan, she’s electing to keep an open mind. Cassellius conceded that her passions lie in “adaptive” work—reasoning out problems, collaborating, making compromises—as opposed to operational details, like getting transportation costs under control. But she said she’s learned a great deal in the past eight years about handling procedural problems.

But there was some ambiguity — even vagueness — in some of her answers. Asked about the controversial decision to close schools as part of Mayor Walsh’s BuildBPS initiative, she described it as a “trade-off” that families should decide: Do they prefer small schools or larger schools with more rigorous and diverse programming? She didn’t express an opinion of her own. And though Cassellius did describe herself as a “strong proponent of middle schools,” she said she could endorse Boston’s move away from stand-alone middle schools if it meant “less transitions” between schools for students.

But some parent-activists saw that ambiguity as a promising sign of Cassellius’s open-mindedness. Mary Battenfeld, a member of the Boston parent group QUEST, said, “Her willingness to genuinely listen to the community — it bodes well.”

The third and only local finalist, Oscar Santos, faced interviews on Wednesday, after the Reporter’s deadline. The story on his interview will appear next week and online at DotNews.com.

This article first appeared on the website of WBUR 90.9FM on Mon., April 22. The Reporter and WBUR have a partnership agreement in which the two news organizations share content and resources.