Boyd in for the Long Haul As Supt.
LOWELL — Joel Boyd is in it for the long haul.
Boyd, who was selected by the Lowell School Committee as the next superintendent of schools earlier this month, said he hopes to serve in the position for a decade, maybe more — far exceeding the short tenures of recent Lowell superintendents and the roughly five year average of superintendents in the state.
That’s how long it takes to bring about sustainable improvement and stability, he said.
“I think this job, this role, is a ten year job,” said Boyd, who is shopping for a house in Lowell. “It’s a ten year commitment you’re making when you sign on to one of these roles.”
“I hope the community finds value in the work that I’m doing and the marriage with the school committee lasts as long as my marriage continues to thrive with my wife. I’ve been married sixteen years and sixteen years feels like a good tenure of superintendent too. We’ll see.”
Boyd, 40, is currently an academic superintendent at Boston Public Schools, tasked with closing “opportunity gaps,” but his career has taken him across the country.
He grew up in Dover, Delaware. Boyd was one of four siblings. He was raised by a single mother after his father left the family when he was 12.
In middle school, he said his family struggled financially and he struggled in school, both behaviorally and academically.
“I say 54 percent of our students here in school are identified as economically disadvantaged,” he said. “Every one of them is me.”
In high school, Boyd said his wrestling coach took him under his wing and became a mentor.
“He literally grabbed me by my neck and said he wasn’t going to tolerate what I was showing in school,” Boyd said.
Boyd went on to become the captain of his high school wrestling team and later coached wrestling at both the middle-school and high-school level.
He attended University of Delaware and took his first job in education as a middle-school science teacher in Smyrna, Delaware. He said the hands-on element of science education, which at that point was not common in other subjects, appealed to him.
Four years later, he “reluctantly” left the classroom. His mother-in-law was sick, so he moved to Pennsylvania with his wife without first lining up a job, he said. Boyd landed a position as an assistant principal of a school in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, a “steel town” he has compared to Lowell.
When asked about working in the classroom compared to working in administration, Boyd cited a quote.
“It goes something along the lines of ‘lead with a teacher’s heart and a principal’s perspective,’” he said. “I really think that embodies how I identify and how I see my leadership.”
He later worked in a variety of administrative positions in Florida and Philadelphia. In 2012, he completed a doctorate in education through Harvard University’s urban superintendents program, completing a dissertation studying career factors that lead to the success of a superintendent.
The dissertation included case studies of successful school leaders with different backgrounds, like education, the military and law. Boyd found that past jobs don’t matter, but past experiences do.
“One of them said this — and it didn’t resonate as much then — but he said ‘You learn how to be a superintendent, by being a superintendent,’” Boyd said.
The same year, Boyd was named the superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, an experience which he said taught him lessons, like the benefit of a lengthy commitment to a district. He worked there four years, before taking a job in the private-sector at a BrightBytes, a cloud-based education technology company.
“This is going to require a ten year, not a four-year tenure,” he said. “That’s not something I think you can learn until you’ve done the work and see how the rhythm plays out.”
He said Santa Fe Public Schools shared commonalities with Lowell, including a similar enrollment, a high number of economically disadvantaged students, a student body that speaks multiple languages, ongoing school construction projects and conflict over state funding.
At times, he acknowledges, he has taken heat from critics. The Santa Fe New Mexican reported he boosted test scores in the district, but only slightly, and butted heads with a union leader over management style and policy changes.
“Any time you’re in a political role and you make a hard decision, you end up with the Goldilocks syndrome where it’s too hard, it’s too soft, it’s just right,” he said. “I think even sometimes our most popular politicians there’s someone who is adamantly opposed to decisions that they make.”
His career has taken him to a number of urban districts with diverse student populations, including many students who are facing economic hardships. He said he believes the country and community have a “moral obligation” to close achievement gaps and treat education as, not a privilege, but a “fundamental civil right.”
In Lowell, he sees gaps in achievement between populations of students as one of four areas he would like to address. He also listed the district’s fiscal resources, creating a safe and welcoming school and engaging the entire community as other priorities.
But first, Boyd said, he hopes to listen and speak to the community. He plans to rely on his past experiences, but not replicate them, he said.
“You can’t learn the whole story without talking to people, without visiting schools, without being in the community,” Boyd said. “And spending time listening and learning from the community then enables us to map a path forward with the community.”