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Leadership Profile: Carol R. Johnson

Boston's superintendent makes a push to bring back local schools.

During the forced school busing of the 1970s, opponents of racial integration in Boston argued that students should attend schools in their own neighborhoods with kids they knew. Four decades later, with most of the city’s white students lost to white flight, Boston officials are essentially pushing for kids to do just that.

“The mayor often says that you could have 12 families on the same street, and they don’t know each other, they don’t connect,” says Carol R. Johnson, superintendent of the Boston Public Schools. “[Schools] don’t create the kind of community support that a lot of our students need.”

In a district that’s now only 13 percent white, Boston spends more than $80 million a year busing students an average of two miles to schools that aren’t necessarily much better or more diverse than those in the students’ own neighborhoods.
Johnson and other Boston officials are pushing for the city to adopt a new school assignment plan—one that will reduce the number of miles students log on buses while still giving families good school options.

Q How did the city get to the point where kids travel two miles to attend school?
A Boston has a long history with desegregation and trying to create equitable opportunities for all students. It wasn’t just that black students went to certain schools and white students went to others; it’s that there was an unequal distribution of resources and an unequal opportunity to learn.

What we’re trying to do is to make sure that we create some choices and options for families. The question we’re trying to answer is, How do we construct quality in those communities where there’s a large concentration of poverty so that those families don’t have to leave their own neighborhoods to get it? We’re seeing progress but we’re not there yet.

Q When you talk about changing which schools kids have access to, that’s a very personal thing for parents. How do you manage this process?
A It’s not possible to have this conversation without being emotional because so many people felt disrespected by how the original desegregation plan mapped out. A lot of families left. A lot of families stayed, but they felt they were promised more access to quality than they got. We shouldn’t be surprised that people feel emotionally charged about this issue. But I think we need to move to a place where the most important decisions we make have to do with ensuring equitable access to opportunity.

Q The plans that the city is considering are less ambitious than some that were floated earlier, and kids will still travel more than a mile to school, on average. Is this incremental change?
A I think this is a pretty substantive change, because we’re at a very different place in terms of quality. In the past, we started out with numerical goals—what percentage of students of color would be distributed where—and we looked very closely at each school to see if the numbers were right. People thought that if we got the numbers right, magic would somehow happen. We’re at a very different place now. We’re not just focused on the numbers. After all, 87 percent of the students in Boston are students of color. What we’re looking at is, Where are the schools that are performing at high levels, and who has access to them?

Q Boston’s four-year graduation rate has gone up every year since 2007, the year that you were hired, but it still sits at slightly less than two-thirds. What remains to be done?
A We did a study my first year here to see if we could predict which students were most likely to drop out. We turned up four big predictors for dropping out: students who failed one or more core courses in middle school; students with less than 80 percent attendance in junior high; older students who arrived not knowing any English; and students who were in substantially separate special education classes for extended periods of time. What we have been trying to do is attack all of these factors.

Q Student test scores have also been rising. But the numbers continue to lag quite a bit behind those of the suburbs. How do you measure success?
A You’re looking for growth, absolutely. So if a school is starting at zero or 10, and they get the kids to 55, but 70 is passing, they may be making more progress than schools that are at 68.

On the other hand, let’s be honest. When you apply for college, they don’t have one test for some kids and ­another test for everybody else. When you go to interview for a job, there’s not a section on the application that says, It’s okay if you were raised by a single mom. At the end of the day, what we have to do is get kids ready for the real world.

We have an exciting opportunity in Boston to demonstrate how you can achieve excellence for almost all of the students that you serve. We are in a school district manageable enough that there shouldn’t be excuses for us not getting to that point.

Q The tenures of some big-city school superintendents seem to be a series of major controversies. What’s your approach to the job?
A It’s being both actively aggressive—such as when you have to close a school and you end up taking a lot of flak from people—and being very patient. You can’t be doing it for the press release. You have got to be doing it because it’s sustainable.

Our kids are much too precious and our work too important not to take what we do very seriously and thoughtfully. I won’t say incrementally, though, because there is a sense of urgency. We can’t wait forever and ever. If your child is in the 30 percent of kids who might not graduate in five years, you don’t want to hear me say we’re slowing down. You want to hear me say we’re going to do everything we can to rescue your kid—we are not going to let your kid fail.

—Spring 2013—

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