From his early days in education, Mass. commissioner sought to level playing field

ByAlyssa R. Elliott

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That disconnect, stubborn and systemic, between potential and opportunity has pushed him and described his occupation, people today who know him stated, as he manufactured his way from just one having difficulties urban college to the subsequent. And it has led him now to an uncomfortable, unparalleled, and, for him, seemingly inevitable reckoning, as he attempts to force Boston to handle longstanding faculty deficiencies, working with the danger of state takeover as leverage.

Critics say his solution has been significant-handed, intrusive, and unfair, inserting far too considerably of the stress on a new mayor and not adequate on his possess section, when demanding quick fixes and unrealistic timelines for troubles a long time in the earning.

His terms, at instances, can audio patronizing, implying that Wu has failed to grasp the gravity of the condition. In an job interview, he reported he needs the mayor to “take personal duty and realize how crucial the difficulty is” in the to start with strategy he proposed, in Could, he requested Wu to indicator a pledge to “always set the passions of learners first, forward of adults.”

Wu’s business office declined to comment for this report. But the mayor has shown restraint in her community response, even though she created a issue previous week to say that students are presently her priority. She also described the city’s counterproposal to Riley’s approach as, “collaborative … and not patronizing.”

Some observers say the optics make them squeamish: a white, male bureaucrat, appointed to his publish in 2018 about two remarkably capable finalists, equally gals of coloration, now stepping in to tell two other accomplished women of all ages of shade, Wu and outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, how to run their own university district.

Riley, reticent and reserved in an job interview, stated these critiques must be secondary. The concentration, he stated, shouldn’t be on who he is but what Boston’s underserved students have to have.

“I really do not believe [the optics] really should get in the way of 40,000 little ones who have to have a better working experience,” the commissioner, 50, said in an job interview Wednesday, “and I assume the mayor and I concur on that.”

Nor is he bothered by rumors that his tough scrutiny of Boston is fueled by a need to lead the state’s largest district, by using a condition takeover, or as its superintendent, with Cassellius owing to go away after the faculty 12 months finishes. “I have an critical occupation that I enjoy, and no interest in jogging BPS,” explained Riley, who earns a wage of $257,000. “I only have an interest in strengthening the schooling for the pupils there.”

How to reach that advancement — by negotiating an uneasy partnership with Wu, 37, and a new superintendent nevertheless to be named, or by wrestling authority absent from them — is the concern looming nevertheless unanswered. Riley and Wu have been striving to negotiate a pact because May perhaps 20, just right before one more state report once more assailed the district for its lack of progress.

Now forged as an outsider meddling in town affairs, the commissioner nonetheless has deep Boston roots. He lives in the town, and despatched his very own kids to college there, and created his track record and vocation in BPS.

A merchandise of suburban Belmont Higher University, where by he was a soccer standout, and Pomona College, a smaller liberal arts school in southern California, Riley invested 3 many years instructing in Baltimore just after university, where by he also earned a master’s degree in counseling at Johns Hopkins University. He saw pupils arrested, shot, and killed, but he also received new confidence. “After that, everything appeared effortless,” he told the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in 2012.

Riley labored as a counselor in a Brockton different college following returning to Massachusetts, then sought a next master’s diploma at Harvard’s Graduate School of Instruction. He also served an internship at Edwards Middle College in Charlestown, exactly where he certain powerhouse principal Charles McAfee to mentor him in how to direct, and enhance, a college.

“I was intrigued by his self-confidence,” recalls McAfee, a college turnaround professional now retired from BPS. “I experienced two candidates, and he came in and claimed, ‘I’m the just one you want’ … I said, ‘Excuse me? You believe you are very great. You improved be.’”

The two gentlemen created a near and lasting bond as McAfee tutored his protégé in the elaborate duties of an city principal, from controlling offended dad and mom and defusing racial tensions to navigating assorted cultures and shrugging off unconstructive criticism.

It was his function with McAfee at the Edwards faculty, claimed Riley, that persuaded him to adhere with education, when he saw how solid leadership could generate transformation in the encounter of poverty. “He was managing an awesome university,” said Riley. “It manufactured me believe we can get this carried out.”

Riley remaining Boston to run a new middle school in Tyngsborough, where he was known as a excellent-natured chief eager to be dunked in tanks and “pied” in the confront by learners. Then, McAfee enticed him back to the city in 2005. The pair teamed up again to attempt to stabilize Madison Park Technical Vocational Substantial University in Roxbury, a single try between a lot of that did not produce long lasting adjustments at the troubled school.

McAfee said he observed a enthusiasm in Riley for accomplishing proper by youngsters, and for going ahead, toward the newest, very best tips that may interact them.

“When you have that like of education and all children, and then you see the details [on BPS], how could that be satisfactory?” McAfee stated. “It’s not out of anger it’s a enthusiasm. There are persons with egos who want to set their stamp on factors. … He will in no way be that person, no make any difference what they say.”

Riley up coming served as principal at Edwards Center College from 2007 to 2009, adhering to in his mentor’s footsteps. The faculty had declined just after McAfee’s departure, and was on the brink of closing. But Riley revived it, extending the university working day, including extracurricular choices to have interaction pupils and weeklong academic boot camps, an effort and hard work he later on replicated broadly as a BPS district administrator.

Dr. Carol Johnson, then Boston’s superintendent, designed Riley the district’s innovation main right after looking at him revitalize the Edwards faculty, the place he also developed new incentive buildings to engage the most effective instructors for much more hrs, and drew people near.

“Students and family members were being noticeable to him. He knew them by title, and his enthusiasm was contagious,” Johnson said. “He has innovation in his DNA, and he can be impatient if individuals aren’t shifting swiftly enough to change points.”

His talent for rebuilding having difficulties colleges received Riley consideration, and led him, in 2012, to his very first high-profile statewide function, when the state appointed him receiver of the underperforming Lawrence General public Colleges. An outsider placed in cost of rehabilitating the 13,000-university student procedure, Riley explained the most essential point he did was to assemble a group of father or mother advisers from every single school, which he named “an unbelievable guiding power.”

Former Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera mentioned Riley was collaborative, available, and modern, a partner rather of an enforcer, whose restraint gained him regard and loyalty. “He came in as receiver and promptly turned our superintendent,” he said. “It seriously was about the little ones with him. I felt that each working day.”

Riley’s legacy in Lawrence is nevertheless staying debated, a ten years afterwards. Gains produced in his initially handful of decades proved hard to maintain, and quite a few in the city are now demanding an end to the extended takeover.

But his effects there persuaded point out leaders to faucet him once again, six yrs later, for the occupation of condition commissioner of schooling. His choice, in 2018, let down all those who hoped the state would select a lady for the career, for the to start with time ever, and those who backed two other finalists, Angelica Infante-Green, a deputy commissioner in New York and climbing star later on named commissioner in Rhode Island, and Penny Schwinn, who turned commissioner in Tennessee.

Parent activist Keri Rodrigues, a chief and founder of Massachusetts Mom and dad United and the Nationwide Parents Union, was 1 of people who observed a skipped option. “I thought we required fresh eyes,” she claimed in an job interview. “I needed another person from outside.”

But in the four yrs due to the fact, Rodrigues stated, Riley has gained her over with his willingness to pay attention and to hear tough criticism. For the duration of the pandemic, she asked him to sign up for a Zoom meeting with hundreds of dad and mom — numerous of them upset and anxious about the effects of school closures on young children with unique demands. She claimed he used hrs answering concerns and addressing their fears.

Tom Scott, government director of the Massachusetts Association of Faculty Superintendents, explained Riley was equally obtainable to college district leaders across the point out at the height of the pandemic, handing out his cellphone variety and responding to each and every textual content concept.

“He had to make a playbook from scratch, from square a person, and determine it out,” Scott said. “It was a extremely seeking, really tense time, and if he was perspiring, I didn’t see it.”

Recent and previous colleagues say Riley can be boisterous and wickedly funny in personal, swapping tales about the sudden twists and turns of university administration. That component of his persona has remained mainly hidden from community check out, specifically for the duration of the disruption of the earlier two decades, as his leadership for the duration of the pandemic drew waves of controversy, criticism, even threats from some who disagreed with his directives on masking and closing and opening colleges.

Unlike Wu, extensively known as the mother of two BPS pupils, Riley, who is divorced, hardly ever would make general public mention of his individual two youngsters, one particular a latest BPS graduate and the other continue to in higher school in the district. Mates say he wants to protect their privateness. At the rear of the scenes, though, his experience as a mother or father has sharpened his grasp of families’ wants and expectations — and of the frustrations they can encounter, he explained.

He recalled a single meeting with educators at his child’s faculty where he was “told things that weren’t real, and I understood it, but the normal dad or mum wouldn’t know.” The experience underscored for him the worth of honesty, he stated, and sharing info, so mothers and fathers can make the finest decisions for their little ones.

Rodrigues stated Riley has talked with her about his encounters as a mum or dad, and it adjusted the way she observed him.

“That actuality that he has also walked that highway, and that he was ready to share it, disclosed his humanity as a dad,” she reported. “Instead of hoping to chat us out of being mad, he stated, ‘I get it I’d be mad as well. Now how can we determine it out alongside one another?’”

Margaret McKenna, longtime president of Lesley University and former chairwoman of the point out Board of Elementary and Secondary Instruction, also cited Riley’s humanity, his “salt of the earth” excellent, and serious worry for little ones, and she pointed out the complexities of his position, sure as it is to the governor’s instruction agenda, which stresses accountability. But she too has uncovered it agonizing to view the state’s techniques with BPS, she reported, with its punitive, implementing tone and patriarchal undercurrents.

“The strategy need to be, ‘You fellas are owning hassle how can we assist you?’” claimed McKenna, who voted for Infante-Environmentally friendly for commissioner in 2018 instead of Riley, citing her varied practical experience. “DESE’s job is to enable them be far better, to be a put you go for aid, and I don’t feel it is that now.”

Johnson, the former BPS superintendent, sees bring about for optimism, given Riley’s information of the district, if the approach presents Wu a probability to direct, and accounts for lingering effects from the pandemic.

Riley jokes that his background as a center faculty principal can make him impervious to rumors and insults, but some who know him see yet another reason for his at times blunt method.

“He’s so concentrated on kids, he doesn’t care about politics,” reported Rivera, the previous Lawrence mayor, who sometimes attempted to advise Riley on political method. “He would inform me ’No, that’s not why we’re in this article.’”


Jenna Russell can be arrived at at [email protected] Observe her on Twitter @jrussglobe.