There are a lot of narratives in the Boston Public Schools (BPS) that suggest when neighborhood demographics change, and a school gets more white students, then it improves, but that’s not the story that award-winning Principal Julia Bott has to tell about the improvement of the Ellis Mendell School in Egleston Square – a K-5 elementary school drawing about 300 kids from Roxbury and JP.
Bott was announced this week at the 2021 Thomas C. Passios Elementary Principal of the Year, and also the National Elementary School Principal of the Year by the Massachusetts School Administrators Association (MSAA). This week, she said she considers it an award for the entire staff and the school – noting they have improved all students by focusing on inclusion, aspiration to excellence and taking agency.
And instead of improvement by demographic change, she said the demographic changes only pushed her and her staff to double down their efforts to raise up all the children – and if accolades are any indicator, it has worked.
“JP went through some significant gentrification and we began to attract white, middle-income and upper-income families,” she said. “We are about 30 percent white now and we were about 5 percent before. Sometimes there is a narrative that a school improves and gets better because it becomes more white. I don’t accept that at all. I think the shift pushed me as a school leader who is white and overseeing a school mostly of people of color, to put that on a balance that we affirm…I would argue the shift in demographics pushed me as a leader to decide what community we wanted to be.”
Bott, a Boston College graduate, began her career at the Gardner Pilot in Allston, and then was encouraged to move her talents to the Mendell as an assistant principal. She served in that role for two years, and then became acting principal for six months. Then, on July 1, 2010, she took the reins of the Mendell to become principal, and is now serving her 11th year in that role.
A big part of her success has been including everyone in the same circle, including putting substantially-separate special education students in the general classroom, and fighting against the pushback that came from that decision. Such substantially separate settings are known in Boston to affect Black and LatinX students far more than white students, and can serve as a de facto form of segregation.
“The sub-separate setting can be a form of racism because they take students of color out of the running for opportunities and that changes the trajectory of their lives,” she said. “We got pushback from the white community who didn’t want their kids with those kids. So, we also pushed back and said if you want to stay in our school community, you have to accept these children.”
Now, at the Mendell, all the students sit shoulder to shoulder learning together – and it has not hurt academic achievement as some might have thought.
Together with her team of dynamic educators, committed families, and amazing students, Bott has collaboratively facilitated the Mendell’s transformation from an under-performing elementary school on the brink of “turn-around” status to a high-achieving, fully-inclusive school community that proudly embraces their shared values of inclusivity, excellence, and agency.
Among those values is a strong curriculum based on anti-racism teaching that starts early so that children understand why systems are the way they are, why some achieve and others don’t – and particularly why the deck seems stacked against some children and not others.
“Kids as young as 5 start learning oppression that early,” she said. “If you don’t start telling kids about systems and structures that perpetuate problems and not putting that on individual people, but on the system – kids will internalize it. Our commitment to inclusion and in particular about race is something I know Boston is work on, but I didn’t have a real sense where the state was at. I was surprised to get the award. As a white woman aspiring to be an ally, I am proud to stand shoulder to shoulder with colleagues that do this incredible work every day…I feel very strongly this isn’t my award, but the school community and families.”
The Boston Schools Fund has worked closely with the Mendell for some time, and are helping them implement a re-centering grant. Director Will Austin had nothing but praise for Bott’s work.
“Principal Bott has been an excellent partner with Boston Schools Fund,” he said. “We are inspired by her commitment to academic excellence, equity, and joy at the Mendell. The Mendell is a proof point that all children can and should have access to a quality education regardless of race, ability, or address.”
Supt. Brenda Cassellius said Boston Public Schools was lucky to have her dedication in a school that is a beacon of hope for every school in the district.
“Her innovative approach to leadership and commitment to consistent communication with her school community, throughout the pandemic, in particular, has been a beacon of hope for the entire school and BPS at large,” said Cassellius. “Her work to provide inclusive and equitable environments in which her students thrive is admirable and aligned with the strategic vision of Boston Public Schools. Because of school leaders like Julia, we can confidently proclaim that BPS has some of the best talent in the Commonwealth. Julia goes above and beyond to promote the culture of inclusion, anti-racism and excellence we foster throughout our entire district. Julia would say she’s lucky to have her students and staff, but they are just as lucky to have her.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey said like the sports teams in Boston that have made us the ‘City of Champions,’ there are also unsung heroes like Bott who embody and pass on that same winning spirit.
“BPS is home to world-class educators and administrators,” said Janey. “I am elated to know the 2021 MSAA Elementary School Principal of the Year award belongs to one of our very own school leaders. Principal Bott reflects Boston’s core values in her school community by advancing the educational rigor, collaboration, and achievement our great city is known for. I congratulate Julia and the entire Mendell School staff for their hard work and dedication on behalf of our students and families.”
Added School Committee Chair Alexandra Oliver-Dávila, “Principal Bott has led the Mendell School tirelessly. It is no wonder to hear that she has been selected to receive such a prestigious award. Julia measures and monitors the achievement of each student, ensuring they have a solid educational foundation, regardless of their background. She is one of the many examples of amazing leaders who make a difference within BPS, and I join the School Committee in congratulating her on this honor and thanking her for her extraordinary leadership.”
Bott said that while the achievement has been validated, it doesn’t mean the work is over. In fact, she said this kind of work starts every day with a choice to move forward, or not.
“Antiracism is a verb: a daily commitment, a choice we must make over and over again,” she said. “Our community of learners will continue to work together to uproot and unlearn our biases and deepen our collective knowledge of culturally and linguistically sustaining practices. This benefits all students, but in particular, it centers the voices, ideas, contributions, and experiences of those communities that have been most profoundly impacted by historical marginalization: people of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ+ community.”
Bott is a two-time graduate of Boston College, earning a bachelor’s degree in English and a master’s degree in Educational Administration, and a degree in Moderate Special Needs. She will also begin post-graduate studies to pursue a doctorate in Educational Leadership at Boston College this July. She will be presented with an award from the MSAA at their annual Summer Leadership Institute in July to celebrate her influence on the Mendell School community and the district at large.
At the ceremony this summer, she said she hopes to be able to get a photo of herself with Vice President Kamala Harris, something that would be a powerful image for her students.
“I would like to meet Kamala Harris and take a picture with her – she being a significant woman of leadership, a woman of color, an Asian woman and a child of immigrants,” she said. “It would be a powerful representation for my students.”