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Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius will step down from her position as the district’s chief executive in June — a decision that Mayor Michelle Wu described on Monday as “mutual.”
In a letter to the BPS community, Wu announced Casellius, who came to Boston schools from Minnesota three years ago, will “transition out” of her role leading BPS at the end of the current school year.
The decision was made after several days of conversation among Wu, Cassellius, and Boston School Committee Chair Jeri Robinson about the “progress, future, and leadership” of the district, Wu wrote.
“We have come to this decision after careful deliberation, with mutual respect for all involved and an acknowledgment that there is much work still to be done this school year and beyond,” Wu, the mother of two BPS students herself, wrote. “I am so grateful for the Superintendent’s leadership, especially while navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, and for her courage in addressing needed structural changes within our district. She has given Boston three years of strong leadership and service, and we are a better city for it.”
Cassellius, in her own letter Monday, expressed gratitude for her time on the job and to district employees and officials, but offered no details or explanation behind the sudden decision.
“In the coming months I look forward to working closely with Mayor Wu, my team and my incoming successor to ensure a smooth and seamless transition,” Cassellius wrote. “As I said when I arrived in Boston, this work requires all hands on deck. My hands — and my heart — will be fully committed to BPS until it is time to pass the baton.
“Until then, my sleeves are rolled up because we still have work to do,” she added.
In a third letter, Robinson wrote that Boston owes Cassellius “a tremendous debt of gratitude for her transformational leadership and service on behalf of the city’s children.”
“We have set ambitious goals for BPS and will continue to drive them forward together in the coming months,” Robinson wrote. “The School Committee will have more to share in the next few weeks on the process to identify a new leader for BPS.”
Cassellius’s departure brings back a familiar cycle for BPS leadership: Her successor will be the district’s sixth superintendent within the past decade.
Monday’s announcement also comes only four months after Wu expressed she was committed to keeping Cassellius on board.
Then a candidate for mayor, Wu said the next mayor should have the “flexibility to work with the School Committee and ensure that we have leadership to match the vision of the new administration.”
Wu, however, later clarified she did not say Cassellius “needs to go,” adding that “constant turnover of BPS leadership has been incredibly destabilizing.”
In November, shortly after she was elected mayor, Wu said she intended to have Cassellius remain on the job.
“We need stability, we need to ensure that our schools and school communities have supports,” Wu said.
The Boston School Committee picked Cassellius for the post in May 2019, after former Superintendent Tommy Chang resigned the previous year, following an at-times rough relationship with then-Mayor Marty Walsh.
Chang, now like Cassellius, stepped down after three years at the district’s helm.
The former education commissioner of Minnesota, Cassellius garnered broad support for her candidacy based on her focus on equity and engagement with families and students.
She began the job that fall, having only months in Boston before BPS went fully remote at the onset of COVID-19 in March 2020.
Under the majority of her tenure, the district has weathered the ever-unfurling pandemic challenges that have tested the limits of educators and families nationwide.
The district’s reopening process last year left Cassellius on the receiving end of frustrations from parents over the slow return to in-person learning and from teachers, who gave Cassellius a vote of no confidence in late 2020.
Most recently, hundreds of Boston students walked out of schools last month over the lack of a remote-learning option as the virus surged again. (State regulations required schools to continue in-person leaning.)
Cassellius also faced criticism last spring from a number of high school students on the district’s Student Advisory Committee over how BPS takes into account student voices and feedback.
The Boston School Committee’s student representative at the time resigned in March, describing disrespect he said he received while serving on the body.
The former advisory committee members also took aim at district leadership after bringing to light student experiences regarding controversial counseling sessions with a nonprofit organization hired by BPS. The district ultimately cut ties with the nonprofit.
Several student leaders went so far as to call on Cassellius to resign over how she handled their concerns surrounding the unlicensed form of group therapy in June 2021.
And in August last year, Cassellius came under fire after her state license to serve as the district administrator expired the month before. She eventually took and passed the required test for licensure.
Still, Cassellius received high marks in her performance review from the School Committee last June.
On Monday, Wu highlighted several achievements made by BPS under Cassellius’s leadership, such as a guarantee for every school to have access to a social worker, a nurse, a guidance counselor, a psychologist, and other professionals and setting expectations to bring schools in line with the MassCore academic standards.
Wu also wrote the district has “championed greater transparency and authentic engagement with students, parents, and community members.”
Her letter went on to state BPS has “made important progress toward greater equity, inclusion, and justice by reforming grading, attendance, student privacy, and selective admissions policies.”
In October 2020, the School Committee voted to adopt a controversial proposal to drop admissions tests for BPS’s prestigious exam schools in favor of a policy that officials said would better address racial disparities in those institutions.
“As we look to build on these successes, I am also focused on expanding access to early childhood education, reimagining BPS facilities to advance learning, and ensuring excellence across the district, including in all our high schools,” Wu wrote. “The next senior leader of the district will need to be ready to execute quickly, and I will be working in close partnership with the School Committee to move forward the search process for a permanent Superintendent.”
Robinson wrote that Casellius “has been relentless in her focus on equity, never wavering in her commitment to our students and families.”
“She set an example for those of us who share her dreams that all BPS students have equitable opportunities to achieve success in school and in life,” she wrote.
In her letter, just over a page long, Cassellius reflected on her tenure, remarking she would never had initially envisioned having to take on the obstacles COVID-19 brought on just eight months into her time in Boston:
Since then, we’ve confronted a global pandemic, reckoned with escalating racial division and civil unrest, and worked to repair community relationships that had eroded trust in our schools and confidence in our city. It is nothing short of remarkable that in the midst of it all we also developed a community-wide vision for equitable and excellent schools in every neighborhood of Boston; made historic steps forward in expanding access to our nation-leading exam schools; implemented a rigorous set of high graduation standards for every high school in the district with adoption of the MassCore; and put in place more just and transparent attendance, code of conduct, student privacy and grading policies
Cassellius also thanked the “three dedicated mentors who have served as thought partners, mentors, and friends.”
My full gratitude goes to former Mayor Kim Janey for her leadership during a time of transition for the City and to Mayor Wu for setting a vision for BPS that puts children firmly at the center. And I am forever grateful to Mayor Marty Walsh for a phone call more than three years ago that eventually brought me to Boston; his support, wise counsel and leadership forever changed the course of my professional career. I am equally grateful to the members, past and present, of the Boston School Committee who have set a high standard of excellence, supported me and my team, and held us accountable to the children of Boston. Their dedication and service, which is often overlooked, gets the recognition it deserves.
The superintendent went on to thank “the entire BPS community,” including students:
You are the reason I come to work every day. You have inspired me with your ideas, your creativity, your resilience and your voices. I will carry you and your incredible potential with me long after my time in Boston has come to an end. I am beyond proud of your resilience and brilliance.
Cassellius made clear she will finish out the current school year as superintendent and will assist in the transition of her successor.
Wu and Robinson said they will have more details about the search for the district’s next leader in the coming weeks.
The School Committee has the final say over who that person will be, although, notably, the committee is made up of members appointed by the mayor.
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