June 22, 2018; Boston Globe
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang is stepping down this week three years into a five-year contract. This comes after a string of problems at BPS that culminated in a lawsuit over whether BPS shared information with ICE that led to a student’s deportation. Chang’s is the shortest term as Boston superintendent in 40 years, excluding interim posts.
Boston’s Mayor Marty Walsh said, “We need a long-term education leader with a proven record in management who can gain the confidence of the community on the strategic vision for the district.”
Community members said that though Chang is very smart and devoted to BPS students, he was not able to build community relationships enough to really lead the change Boston schools needed. City Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George told the Boston Globe, “He fell short of really building meaningful relationships…You can articulate a vision, but it proves to be impossible to actually effect any change because there wasn’t that relationship between him and the community.”
Last November, Chang withheld an IRS report that showed student activity funds were being used to pay for teacher stipends and other non-student-activity-related items. Kenny Jervis, a district parent, “questioned whether Chang withheld the IRS findings because he was in the midst of being evaluated by the School Committee and may have also wanted to avoid an embarrassing disclosure while Walsh ran for reelection,” according to the Globe’s James Vaznis.
BPS has also failed to live up to several promises made by Walsh and Chang. For instance, even though Walsh promised in 2013 to spent $1 billion renovating public schools, as of early June 2018, Chang was still convening community panels and the only new schools were charters. Despite promises in September 2017 to triple the number of schools providing free breakfast to low-income students, as of May 2018, little to no progress had been made, even as other, nearby districts like New Bedford and Brockton have improved their rates significantly.
One of Chang’s more public missteps was the fuss over school starting times. Some studies, including one from the American Academy of Pediatrics, have shown that adolescents would benefit from later school start times, which more naturally match their sleep cycles, and younger children can start school earlier without the same health detriments. But Chang’s handling of the decision, which evidently involved little to no community input, almost immediately tanked the project. BPS decided to change school start times in 84 percent of its 125 schools and unveiled the decision to parents in a meeting shortly before the schedules were to be switched. Working parents whose planned daycare schedules were thrown into chaos protested vehemently. BPS parent Sarah Beaulieu wrote,
I’m really dismayed at how this decision was made and communicated. Changing start times is a big decision, and not something that principals, parents, city Councilors and after school programs learn about on the same day…I have lost so much faith and confidence in BPS as a district that really embraces economic diversity and knows how to navigate tough decisions in smart ways.
BPS abandoned the plan in a few weeks.
Many people have acknowledged that Boston is a complicated district, with a lot of historically entrenched issues to navigate and an enormously diverse population to serve. It serves a lot of students with individual education plans, or who come from communities where most families live below the poverty line. The racial inequities among students have not improved in recent years. Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston chapter of the NAACP, said, “I think part of the challenge for BPS has been a lack of intentionality in developing and implementing initiatives that can help to move the needle on teacher diversity.” In March, Chang said he was working on programs to help improve racial representation.
In the incident that reportedly prompted Chang’s departure, a student was involved in a confrontation that did not become physical at East Boston High. School police, however, still wrote up an incident report, which they shared with “Boston Regional Intelligence Center, a network of local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that includes officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” according to Vaznis. This is after Chang and Walsh promised that all students, regardless of immigration status, would be welcomed in Boston Public Schools. It’s been widely documented that students of color, particularly male students of color, are disciplined at higher rates than white students for the same behavior. This student was held by customs for 16 months and then deported.
After all the issues in the past few years, and now the controversy with ICE, Walsh and others feel BPS would be better served by someone who can connect with the community. City Councilor Lydia Edwards said she would welcome an internal candidate familiar with Boston’s particular issues and history. (Chang came from Los Angeles Unified School District, where he ran an innovation program.)
It’s worth noting that despite such challenges, Massachusetts is considered the number one state in the US when it comes to K12 education. Two thirds of Massachusetts residents live in the greater Boston area, and about one tenth of the population lives in Boston proper, meaning that the district’s schools are a meaningful portion of the state’s education system. If the number one state for education in the US is saying they need more community input to their schools, perhaps that should be a nationwide conversation.—Erin Rubin