Carol Johnson Gets Mixed Reviews in Leading Local Schools

She was a figure criticized by some in East Boston for her decision to close schools and hailed by others for helping revamp the student assignment process and improve school performance.

Last week, Boston School Superintendent Dr. Carol Johnson announced her plans to retire after a six-year tenure in Boston.

Johnson, who recently lost her husband, said that loss played a role in her decision to retire at the end of the school year.

“This has been a difficult decision, but as you are aware, the loss of my husband, and best friend Matthew, has been life-altering for me and my entire family,” said Johnson in a letter to BPS parents last week. “I would also like to thank every one of you for the kind words, cards, and prayers that you have offered to me and my family in the last few weeks; they truly have helped carry me through a difficult time.”

Johnson’s departure comes at a time when graduation rates and MCAS scores in the city are on the upswing. In 2010, McKinsey and Company recognized BPS as one of the most improved school districts in the world.

“I am so proud of what we have accomplished together,” said Johnson. “We have improved our high school graduation rates and MCAS performance; we have brought hundreds of students back who had dropped out of school, and are closing achievement gaps. We have expanded academic support for our English Language Learners and students with disabilities, and we have increased the number of quality school choices through our turnaround, in-district charter and innovation schools.”

Over the past year, Johnson, along with Mayor Thomas Menino, oversaw the process to restructure how students are assigned to schools throughout Boston’s neighborhoods. In March the Boston School Committee (BSC) voted to adopt the External Advisory Committee (EAC) on School Choice’s recommendation for a new system.

“This represents a major step forward for our city,” said Johnson of the historic vote. “It is a bold plan that strengthens access to quality schools, builds predictability and improves our communities while ensuring our schools can serve them well. This approval will allow us to focus together on improving school quality and access to quality all across our city.”

However, Johnson’s tenure did not have its fair share of controversy here in Eastie.

At a very heated public meeting in December 2010 the BSC voted 7-0 to close and merge the Alighieri with the Umana as part of Dr. Carol Johnson’s plan to close a looming $63 million budget gap BPS was facing at the time.

It was said that the closing of the school would save BPS less than $300,000.

At the same meeting a motion to keep the Alighieri and one other school open was voted down 3-4, which confused some parents at the time.

Parents were of the opinion that if some of the board in favor of keeping the Alighieri open decided to vote against the overall plan to close and merge schools it could have given parents in Eastie a little more ammo to fight to keep their school open.

By all accounts the Alighieri was a success story. MCAS test scores and enrollment was up the year prior to the closure. There was also strong parental involvement and because of the small size of the building, classes were relatively small compared to other elementary schools in the neighborhood.

It was reported that Johnson arrived at her decision to close and merge schools citywide by using a criteria that included picking schools with low-test scores and schools that were not appealing to parents when making their choices for student assignments.

By his own admission, BPS Academic Superintendent Joe Shea said the Alighieri/Umana merger recommendation was unique because it did not fit in the criteria applied to other schools recommended for a merger or closure because the Alighieri had good test scores and a growing enrollment. At the time Shea said that because the Umana was moving towards a K-8 model it made sense from a financial perspective to try a merger with the Umana because BPS would be unable to expand the successful programs at the school due to the limited size of the current building on Gove Street.

In the end she received praise from Menino for her dedication to improving education by bucking the status quo.

“Dr. Johnson is one of the most compassionate, caring and talented Superintendents in the United States,” said Menino. “She continued the extraordinary transformation of our schools and from day one has focused on creating better schools and offering great classrooms for every child. I often say that she has one of the hardest jobs in the city and she has done it well. We are grateful for everything she has been able to accomplish for our city’s families.”

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