Schools CEO has a lot on her plate

No lack of challenges for Boston as interim leader

July 02, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD AND JULIE SCHARPER | SARA NEUFELD AND JULIE SCHARPER,SUN REPORTERS

It seems that everyone in Baltimore's education circles knows Charlene Cooper Boston. Everyone has a story about her. And now everyone wants her ear.

Tomorrow, the 61-year-old officially begins her tenure as interim chief executive officer of the 85,000-student city school system, a job that many say is one of the toughest in the nation.

Returning to Baltimore after four years at the helm of Wicomico County schools, she has a lot at stake. This is the system where she once attended school. It is the system where she worked for 35 years.

When Boston's appointment was announced June 20, union leaders, top administrators, parent advocates and a city councilwoman packed the room to congratulate her. Her widespread connections, as well as her diplomacy with feuding state and city officials, are two of the qualities that made her attractive to the school board.

A woman with a hearty laugh and an easy smile, Boston is starting during a tumultuous period. The condition of the city schools is a hot topic for debate in the governor's race, where Democratic Mayor Martin O'Malley is facing off against Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. The state prosecutor's office is investigating allegations of financial misconduct among some of former CEO Bonnie S. Copeland's senior staff. For various reasons, many senior staff members have quit or plan to do so.

The school system also faces a long-running special-education lawsuit, underperformance in middle schools and state demands that it close school buildings to operate more efficiently. The management transition comes on the heels of a state attempt in March to order outside takeovers of 11 failing city schools, and officials hope Boston will mend a rift with state Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick.

During such a time, the school board is not looking for a leader to make waves. Those who know Boston say she won't.

"She won't be a distraction, a lightning rod, controversial," said Patricia Welch, a former school board chairwoman and dean of Morgan State University's School of Education and Urban Studies. "She loves the Baltimore City public school system."

It is unclear how long Boston will be in her new position. The board voted to hire her for up to a year, during which time it will conduct a national search for a permanent replacement for Copeland, who was accused of being a weak manager.

Boston, whose salary has not been made public, said she wants to begin on an interim basis before deciding whether to apply for the long term. For the time being, she and her husband will live in a house they own in Ellicott City.

Baltimore native

Boston grew up on the city's west side, where her mother, a retired state meat inspector, and father, a retired postal worker for Bethlehem Steel, have been in the same house for 50 years. When she was a teenager, the pastor of Wayland Baptist Church tapped her to be the "young people's superintendent" of the Sunday school. He told her he thought she would make a good teacher. Her parents did, too. At Edmondson High School, where she was a cheerleader, she joined the Future Teachers of America.

She studied education at Morgan, where she earned a bachelor's degree and then completed a master's while working as a first-grade teacher at Margaret Brent Elementary. The school's vice principal was Alice Pinderhughes, who took Boston under her wing and, in the 1980s, went on to become the city's first female superintendent. (Many years later, Boston chaired the committee that got school system headquarters on North Avenue named after her mentor, who died in 1995.)

After leaving Margaret Brent, Boston worked for Pinderhughes twice more in administrative positions overseeing early childhood education. In the 1970s, Boston said, they were advocating that kindergartners have full-day programs and be taught to read, both concepts that have taken off nationally in recent years.

"I was always part of something that was, you know, on the cutting edge," she said.

She earned a doctorate from the University of Maryland and, in 1979, married Ellis Boston, a labor relations lawyer, now retired, who was at one time the school system's chief negotiator. The couple, who met in church, have no children.

Through the 1980s, 1990s and early part of this decade, Boston held several supervisory jobs, from associate superintendent of external relations, where she dealt with the news media, to area executive officer, where she oversaw 20 to 30 schools a year. She spent three years as principal of Beechfield Elementary.

One of the schools under her jurisdiction, Northern High, made national news in 1997 when the principal suspended nearly 1,200 of her 1,800 students in one day in an attempt to restore order to a rowdy environment.

Over the years, Boston developed a strong social network through involvement in community organizations, particularly the Delta Sigma Theta sorority. She was president of Baltimore's alumnae chapter.

Culture shock

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