Carol Johnson, Boston Public Schools Superintendent, Steps Down

The BPS superintendent explains her decision to resign.

After six years at the helm of Boston Public Schools, Carol Johnson announced today that she’ll be stepping down at the end of the school year. She began considering a move last fall, when her husband, Matthew, fell seriously ill. He lived in Memphis, and throughout the fall and winter she made frequent trips to visit, sparking widespread rumors that she was on her way out. Matthew Johnson died in March, just as the Boston School Committee was preparing to vote on a controversial new school assignment plan that had been in the works for a year. Johnson and I have been talking for months as part of a major profile of her that will run in the May issue of Boston magazine. As part of those conversations, Johnson told me recently that she’d decided to resign in the wake of her husband’s death, which she called “life-altering.” We agreed that I would keep the news private until her decision became public, after which the magazine would publish the interview below. You can also find the press release and a video she prepared explaining her decision.

I’m really sorry about your husband’s death.
I appreciate your saying that. Matt was my best friend in the whole world and the smartest person I ever knew. He was a great teacher, and he kept me grounded in how teachers see the world.

You first thought about stepping down as superintendent last fall after he fell ill, and you were shuttling back and forth to Memphis, where he lived. What made you decide to go through with it now?
There are so many things that are important in life, but your family is the most important. So I felt back then that I needed to transition—because of his illness, we needed to be in closer proximity. But I also felt some responsibility to finish up here, the student assignment work in particular. So I had mentally prepared myself to transition to be closer to my husband and to be there for him. And though my need to do it for him has changed, how I feel about it hasn’t changed.

How do you feel about where you’re leaving Boston Public Schools?
I started with a strong foundation that [previous superintendents] Tom Payzant and Mike Contompassis left, and we were able to move things a little bit further. Even though we’re not where we need to be, graduation rates are up, we’ve reclaimed a lot of kids who dropped out, there are more arts programs across the city and more physical education and healthy activities for kids, we’ve increased proficiency in MCAS scores, we’ve moved forward in working with our charter school partners, and we’ve successfully redistributed school resources using weighted student funding. More students are learning English faster and are performing better. We also did a really important thing on the school-assignment changes: We reached a consensus without polarizing the entire community on a set of issues that had the potential to divide us. We have more high-quality schools than before, and though we had to make hard decisions about closing and revamping schools and creating in-district charters, parents have better choices than they did six years ago. Enrollment is up, and people are moving back to the city—I think in part because we’ve made progress in the schools. We just have to keep at it in order to convince families that their children can get the best education possible in the city of Boston, and that they don’t have to move out of the city to get a great choice close to home.

And are there things that Boston taught you?
Oh my gosh. We’re fortunate in Boston to have a strong group of partners. So one of the things I learned a lot about was how to work with partners and guide their participation in ways that help us maximize the resources they bring. I learned an incredible amount about how to do a better job serving English-language learners. And [through the Re-Engagement Center for dropouts] about what it takes to work with students who’ve given up on the system and bring them back and have them believe in themselves and the system again. I think obviously you learn a lot about politics [she laughs], especially in a system where the mayor cares so deeply about public education and commits so much of his personal agenda to education. And of course every time you make a mistake you learn from it, and I’ve learned a lot about how to better engage the community and give them a voice, because when you are less effective at that it compromises your ability to make progress as fast as you need to. You have to find the balance between acting urgently on behalf of kids and slowing down long enough to build a base of support for change that can support kids.

So what do you plan to do next?
There are so many things that you can do other than being superintendent to help kids learn. I’m sure there will be other ways for me to serve. My family’s a priority, and my grandchildren are priorities. I’m not seeking a superintendent’s job, if that’s what you’re asking. But I do think that people who’ve had experiences like mine have a responsibility to support and develop the next generation of school and district leaders. So if there are ways for me to do that in another context, that would be worth doing.