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

That disconnect, stubborn and systemic, between likely and option has pushed him and described his career, folks who know him stated, as he produced his way from one struggling city university to the next. And it has led him now to an awkward, unprecedented, and, for him, seemingly unavoidable reckoning, as he tries to force Boston to tackle longstanding school deficiencies, utilizing the threat of point out takeover as leverage.

Critics say his method has been heavy-handed, intrusive, and unfair, inserting as well much of the stress on a new mayor and not more than enough on his own department, even though demanding brief fixes and unrealistic timelines for difficulties decades in the building.

His terms, at times, can seem patronizing, implying that Wu has unsuccessful to grasp the gravity of the predicament. In an interview, he said he would like the mayor to “take personal obligation and understand how crucial the issue is” in the first strategy he proposed, in May well, he asked Wu to sign a pledge to “always put the pursuits of college students 1st, in advance of older people.”

Wu’s workplace declined to remark for this post. But the mayor has proven restraint in her public reaction, however she created a point previous week to say that college students are previously her precedence. She also explained the city’s counterproposal to Riley’s system as, “collaborative … and not patronizing.”

Some observers say the optics make them squeamish: a white, male bureaucrat, appointed to his publish in 2018 over two really competent finalists, the two women of color, now stepping in to inform two other attained females of colour, Wu and outgoing Superintendent Brenda Cassellius, how to run their possess school district.

Riley, reticent and reserved in an interview, claimed this kind of critiques really should be secondary. The concentrate, he mentioned, shouldn’t be on who he is but what Boston’s underserved learners need.

“I do not believe [the optics] really should get in the way of 40,000 youngsters who need a much better working experience,” the commissioner, 50, reported in an job interview Wednesday, “and I feel 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 direct the state’s major district, by means of a condition takeover, or as its superintendent, with Cassellius owing to depart just after the university yr ends. “I have an crucial task that I like, and no curiosity in functioning BPS,” stated Riley, who earns a income of $257,000. “I only have an curiosity in improving the schooling for the students there.”

How to reach that advancement — by negotiating an uneasy partnership with Wu, 37, and a new superintendent yet to be named, or by wrestling authority away from them — is the problem looming nevertheless unanswered. Riley and Wu have been trying to negotiate a pact since May well 20, just before another state report once more assailed the district for its lack of progress.

Now forged as an outsider meddling in metropolis affairs, the commissioner nevertheless has deep Boston roots. He life in the metropolis, and sent his individual small children to school there, and created his popularity and career in BPS.

A item of suburban Belmont Substantial University, exactly where he was a soccer standout, and Pomona Faculty, a smaller liberal arts university in southern California, Riley expended a few a long time teaching in Baltimore soon after school, the place he also earned a master’s diploma in counseling at Johns Hopkins College. He saw college students arrested, shot, and killed, but he also obtained new self confidence. “After that, anything seemed easy,” he told the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune in 2012.

Riley worked as a counselor in a Brockton option college just after returning to Massachusetts, then sought a second master’s degree at Harvard’s Graduate University of Training. He also served an internship at Edwards Middle University in Charlestown, in which he convinced powerhouse principal Charles McAfee to mentor him in how to direct, and increase, a university.

“I was intrigued by his self-confidence,” recollects McAfee, a school turnaround specialist now retired from BPS. “I experienced two candidates, and he arrived in and mentioned, ‘I’m the one you want’ … I mentioned, ‘Excuse me? You consider you are rather fantastic. You much better be.’”

The two men made a shut and long lasting bond as McAfee tutored his protégé in the sophisticated duties of an city principal, from controlling angry dad and mom and defusing racial tensions to navigating numerous cultures and shrugging off unconstructive criticism.

It was his work with McAfee at the Edwards university, explained Riley, that certain him to stick with training, when he noticed how sturdy leadership could drive transformation in the experience of poverty. “He was working an remarkable school,” claimed Riley. “It designed me consider we can get this performed.”

Riley left Boston to operate a new center school in Tyngsborough, wherever he was acknowledged as a very good-natured leader willing to be dunked in tanks and “pied” in the face by students. Then, McAfee enticed him again to the metropolis in 2005. The pair teamed up once more to try to stabilize Madison Park Specialized Vocational High University in Roxbury, just one endeavor amongst quite a few that did not yield lasting alterations at the troubled faculty.

McAfee stated he observed a passion in Riley for carrying out correct by young children, and for transferring ahead, toward the most recent, greatest suggestions that may have interaction them.

“When you have that love of education and learning and all young ones, and then you see the data [on BPS], how could that be satisfactory?” McAfee mentioned. “It’s not out of anger it is a passion. There are individuals with egos who want to set their stamp on issues. … He will under no circumstances be that individual, no make a difference what they say.”

Riley next served as principal at Edwards Middle Faculty from 2007 to 2009, subsequent in his mentor’s footsteps. The school experienced declined following McAfee’s departure, and was on the brink of closing. But Riley revived it, extending the college working day, incorporating extracurricular selections to engage students and weeklong tutorial boot camps, an energy he afterwards replicated extensively as a BPS district administrator.

Dr. Carol Johnson, then Boston’s superintendent, built Riley the district’s innovation main immediately after looking at him revitalize the Edwards college, the place he also created new incentive buildings to have interaction the ideal lecturers for more hours, and drew people near.

“Students and people were being noticeable to him. He understood them by title, and his enthusiasm was contagious,” Johnson claimed. “He has innovation in his DNA, and he can be impatient if men and women aren’t transferring speedily enough to modify matters.”

His expertise for rebuilding having difficulties faculties gained Riley awareness, and led him, in 2012, to his first substantial-profile statewide position, when the state appointed him receiver of the underperforming Lawrence Public Faculties. An outsider positioned in demand of rehabilitating the 13,000-scholar procedure, Riley mentioned the most crucial issue he did was to assemble a group of mum or dad advisers from just about every university, which he termed “an remarkable guiding power.”

Previous Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera reported Riley was collaborative, accessible, and progressive, a husband or wife as an alternative of an enforcer, whose restraint won him respect and loyalty. “He arrived in as receiver and promptly turned our superintendent,” he explained. “It seriously was about the young ones with him. I felt that each and every day.”

Riley’s legacy in Lawrence is nevertheless currently being debated, a ten years later on. Gains produced in his first number of yrs proved tough to maintain, and numerous in the town are now demanding an close to the prolonged takeover.

But his effect there certain state leaders to faucet him again, six years later, for the career of condition commissioner of instruction. His range, in 2018, let down these who hoped the condition would pick a female for the work, for the first time at any time, and all those who backed two other finalists, Angelica Infante-Eco-friendly, a deputy commissioner in New York and rising star afterwards named commissioner in Rhode Island, and Penny Schwinn, who turned commissioner in Tennessee.

Father or mother activist Keri Rodrigues, a leader and founder of Massachusetts Mothers and fathers United and the Countrywide Mom and dad Union, was a single of individuals who saw a skipped option. “I assumed we required contemporary eyes,” she reported in an job interview. “I required anyone from outdoors.”

But in the 4 decades given that, Rodrigues stated, Riley has won her more than with his willingness to hear and to listen to challenging criticism. During the pandemic, she questioned him to join a Zoom assembly with hundreds of dad and mom — quite a few of them upset and concerned about the repercussions of school closures on kids with particular needs. She said he spent several hours answering inquiries and addressing their fears.

Tom Scott, govt director of the Massachusetts Affiliation of College Superintendents, claimed Riley was equally obtainable to university district leaders across the point out at the peak of the pandemic, handing out his cellphone number and responding to every single textual content concept.

“He had to build a playbook from scratch, from sq. a person, and determine it out,” Scott stated. “It was a pretty hoping, extremely tense time, and if he was perspiring, I did not see it.”

Current and former colleagues say Riley can be boisterous and wickedly humorous in private, swapping stories about the unforeseen twists and turns of faculty administration. That part of his persona has remained typically concealed from public watch, in particular throughout the disruption of the previous two a long time, as his management in the course of the pandemic drew waves of controversy, criticism, even threats from some who disagreed with his directives on masking and closing and opening educational institutions.

In contrast to Wu, greatly recognized as the mother of two BPS learners, Riley, who is divorced, rarely will make general public mention of his very own two children, one particular a modern BPS graduate and the other nonetheless in substantial faculty in the district. Close friends say he wants to protect their privateness. Driving the scenes, while, his encounter as a guardian has sharpened his grasp of families’ requires and expectations — and of the frustrations they can deal with, he stated.

He recalled one particular meeting with educators at his child’s school wherever he was “told points that weren’t real, and I understood it, but the normal father or mother wouldn’t know.” The working experience underscored for him the importance of honesty, he stated, and sharing info, so moms and dads can make the most effective conclusions for their kids.

Rodrigues claimed Riley has talked with her about his activities as a parent, and it changed the way she observed him.

“That simple fact that he has also walked that street, and that he was willing to share it, disclosed his humanity as a father,” she stated. “Instead of making an attempt to communicate us out of remaining mad, he claimed, ‘I get it I’d be mad way too. Now how can we determine it out with each other?’”

Margaret McKenna, longtime president of Lesley University and former chairwoman of the condition Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, also cited Riley’s humanity, his “salt of the earth” top quality, and serious worry for little ones, and she pointed out the complexities of his position, certain as it is to the governor’s education and learning agenda, which stresses accountability. But she far too has observed it painful to view the state’s practices with BPS, she claimed, with its punitive, implementing tone and patriarchal undercurrents.

“The technique need to be, ‘You guys are obtaining issues how can we assistance you?’” said McKenna, who voted for Infante-Eco-friendly for commissioner in 2018 instead of Riley, citing her various encounter. “DESE’s occupation is to help them be far better, to be a place you go for assistance, and I don’t believe it is that now.”

Johnson, the former BPS superintendent, sees result in for optimism, given Riley’s understanding of the district, if the strategy provides Wu a opportunity to lead, and accounts for lingering affect from the pandemic.

Riley jokes that his record as a center college principal helps make him impervious to rumors and insults, but some who know him see another purpose for his occasionally blunt strategy.

“He’s so targeted on little ones, he does not care about politics,” stated Rivera, the previous Lawrence mayor, who often experimented with to advise Riley on political strategy. “He would explain to me ’No, that is not why we’re listed here.’”


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