“I’ve lost count of how many administrators we’ve had recently,” said Rosann Tung, an independent researcher who focuses on English language learners and immigrant students in Boston. “Leadership instability is a big challenge in meeting the needs of English learners.”
Under Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, six people have been in charge of educating English Learners in less than three years. And during that time, the district struggled to provide all of the immigrant student services stipulated in an agreement with the Department of Justice. The district’s failure to meet the needs of English learners is one of the main issues behind the threat of a state takeover of Boston’s public schools by Massachusetts education officials.
The turnover has had real consequences for students, parents and advocates say. The district has made little progress in meeting parent demand for more services in a student’s first language, and English language learners are more likely than any other BPS demographic to drop out of school.
The directors’ turnstile highlights persistent turnover in Cassellius’ leadership team, which she has shuffled several times, including one in February days before Mayor Michelle Wu announced the “mutual” decision that Cassellius would retire at the end of the school year.
The district’s difficulty in retaining leadership to run the Office of English Learners also underscores philosophical differences about how best to teach immigrants and other students learning English.
Boston Public Schools representatives confirmed that Kapur was not currently working as an assistant superintendent of the Office of English Learners, but declined to answer questions about her absence or whether she was on official leave. According to city payroll records, she was still receiving her biweekly paycheck of over $6,000 last month.
Kapur declined an interview request. Cassellius senior adviser Megan Costello said “the district doesn’t comment on personnel matters” when asked to explain the turnover in the office.
When his appointment was announced in October by Assistant Superintendent of Academics Drew Echelson, he touted Kapur’s experience teaching in a school where students learn in two languages and his philosophy that students’ native languages should be valued rather than seen as a handicap.
In her most recent role in the Human Resources department, Kapur was recognized for developing a pipeline of bilingual educators, essential to supporting English learners and their parents.
But he did not mention in his email to the English Learner Task Force that Kapur had also trained Cassellius to pass his state licensing exams, after it was revealed last year that the superintendent had failed to obtain his superintendent’s license for Massachusetts. (She has since received her license.)
Additionally, Kapur’s resume did not include experience running a school or a large department.
“Some of us were concerned that it would be a big step for Aketa to go from doing his prep work for MTEL (teacher’s license) to running the entire English Learners Office,” said Mudd, a member of the school committee’s English Learners Task Force. “But we worked closely with her and she was clearly deeply committed to providing English learners who needed it with access to mother tongue instruction.”
Kapur also had side projects, which may have caused conflicts of interest in her new role.
She was apparently involved with Telescope Education, according to three current and former school officials with knowledge of the relationship who asked not to be identified by name. Private enterprise creates and sells study materials for teachers wishing to take the MTEL. The company’s website directs customers to pick up documents from a BPS employee at the central district office. Telescope Education does not appear to be registered in Massachusetts, and no directors are listed on the company’s website, but a 2017 federal trademark filing is listed. Kapur’s home address in Massachusetts.
Since Kapur has been on furlough, Deputy Head of Studies Farah Assiraj has been overseeing the Office of English Learners, making her the sixth person to head the department. The state requires districts with 200 or more English learners to have English Learner Directors.
Fans watching the latest office turnover wonder if there was a problem with Kapur’s background, why wasn’t he found before he was hired.
“Without a doubt, there are problems with their internal [vetting] system and the hiring process,” said Roxann Harvey, chair of the Boston Special Education Parent Advisory Council, noting that there were three people in charge of the district special education office during the term of Cassellius.
One factor that may have played a role in the continued instability at the English Learners’ Office was Cassellius’ belief that the office should not exist.
Cassellius pitched the idea of dismantling the department to Priya Tahiliani, who ran the office when Cassellius became superintendent in the summer of 2019, according to Tahiliani, who is now the superintendent of Everett Public Schools.
In October, Cassellius called Tahiliani into his office and said students learning English should be everyone’s responsibility. Although Tahiliani agreed, she believed that if there was no dedicated department, the district would not know if English learners were receiving the appropriate services and no one would be responsible.
For these reasons, Tahiliani “started looking for other options” and left Boston in 2020 to lead the Everett school system.
As the state conducts a comprehensive review of Boston schools for the second time in less than three years, reviewers will measure progress in meeting students’ special education needs and English learners, among others.
As part of the review, the state last month hosted a Zoom “discussion group” with parents of English language learners, which The Globe watched. A Portuguese-speaking mother called the system of enrolling her children in district schools a “nightmare to navigate”.
The district’s Chinese-speaking mother of two, who spoke through an interpreter and only identified herself as Jenny, said the district needs to better support English-learning students taking a special education. She complained that her third-grade student who attended Quincy Elementary School in Chinatown couldn’t get help in Chinese.
“Why do we have a Spanish speaker [teacher’s assistant] for Chinese language students? ” she asked. “Chinese language students would like someone who is a native Chinese teacher or a teacher’s assistant to support them. It would be better if they learned.
The Great Divide team explores educational inequality in Boston and across the state. Sign up to receive our newsletterand send ideas and advice to [email protected].