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Parent activist from Roslindale pushes for change in Boston schools

Posted by Emily Files  December 21, 2012 01:58 PM

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Karen Kast-McBride has always fought for the things she loves. She grew up in Boston, on a street full of boys, who taught her what a real physical fight was – no hair pulling involved. She defended others with words and fists. Following in the footsteps of her Navy veteran father, Kast-McBride joined the Army after high school, serving as a combat field medic in the Gulf War.

But the Roslindale resident’s biggest fight has been as a parent.

“I never realized when I went over to Kuwait and was on the front line and saw stuff that I never even imagined that the hardest fight I would ever have was to get my kid the education that he needed,” said the 42-year-old mother of three.

Kast-McBride has made a name for herself by speaking out during a number of School Committee meetings about improving school choice. She is not subtle about her determination to keep the school system on its toes. Her twitter handle: @bpsnightmare.

“Take my name in vain,” she tells other parents. “Call up and say ‘I’m Karen Kast-McBride’s client’…it works. And that’s horrible.”

Hoping to make a bigger impact, Kast-McBride is applying for a potential opening on the School Committee. Vice-Chairperson Michael O’Neill’s term expires in January. O’Neill could choose to reapply, but Mayor Thomas Menino is accepting applications for the position.

Kast-McBride works full-time as a manager of a psychologist’s practice in Wellesley, but says she devotes more hours to her unpaid positions: mother, advocate, and consultant.

She began her education advocacy when she fought to get special education services for her fourth-grade son, who had a learning disability. It took two and a half years to get the services her son needed, she says. Her son is now 23, and she has two younger daughters in middle and high school.

“She’s relentless,” said Arthur Unobskey, the principal at Washington Irving Middle School, where Kast-McBride’s youngest daughter attends. “She will not give it up. People know that.”

McBride has led efforts to improve the school as a member of the Roslindale Pathway Advisory Group, the Irving School Site Council, and co-chair of the Irving Parent Council.

Speaking with the School Committee, city councilors, and parents, she helped the Irving create a K-8 feeder system, which makes it the landing spot for students from the six Roslindale elementary schools. She also led an effort to obtain funds for an expanded learning-time program, which allows Washington Irving to have longer school hours and more enrichment activities.

Kast-McBride is not shy about making her presence known. When she arrived at Washington Irving for a recent meeting of the School Site Council, she rang the buzzer to be let in and did not pause before ringing it another five times. She was the first to crack a joke when the meeting begins.

“You know I’m a pain in the butt,” she said as she made a point to the other parents and teachers about her ability to get things done.

Kast-McBride suggested getting special pencil grips for the students. “Some kids didn’t learn to write correctly…like me.”

“Do you think I can get this donated?” asked Kast-McBride about school supplies– a rhetorical question. “You know I can,” she added with a laugh.

Her willingness to be frank and forceful makes Kast-McBride successful as an advocate, others say.

“There’s no quit in Karen.” said District 5 City Councilor Rob Consalvo. “But she’s not looking for glory or fame. She does it because she cares about the kids.”

Said Kim Masterson, another Irving Middle School parent: “Almost everyone in BPS knows Karen.”

According to Kast-McBride, the former superintendent of Boston Public Schools, Thomas Payzant, would turn purple at the mere mention of her name.

Payzant, who retired more than six years ago, was diplomatic when asked about her.
“She was always passionate about children and made her point in a firm yet respectful manner,” said Payzant via e-mail.

Masterson has high hopes that Kast-McBride will eventually get a School Committee position.

“She’s going to be very vocal,” she said. “I think it would be a nice change. I know some of the members on the Committee may find issue with it – with her. But they’ll just have to get over it. Other members on the Committee are just going to absolutely love having her.”

The article is being published under an agreement between The Boston Globe and Boston University.

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