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Alumni profile: Charles A. Grandson’s “whole school” approach to school improvement

Charles A. Grandson on the Malden Public Schools's first day of classes

When Charles A. Grandson IV ’05, M.Ed. ’06, Ed.D. ’14, launched his career in education, he never intended to become a school administrator. “l thought, why would I leave the classroom, further removed from educating students?” he recalls. Yet the Washington, D.C., native says he discovered “a passion for education leadership” early, after joining the administrations of underperforming urban schools in Massachusetts and New York. In July, Grandson returned to the Boston area to become interim superintendent of Malden Public Schools.

Malden, notes Grandson, is one of the most diverse cities in Massachusetts, with a school population evenly divided among African American, Asian, Latino, and white students. The poverty rate for children under 18 in the city is 21 percent, and Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data show that six of Malden’s seven schools need improvement in closing achievement gaps among certain groups of students. Malden High School is ranked among the lowest performing 20 percent of schools in the state.

Grandson comes to Malden from a deputy superintendent’s job in a similar district in Poughkeepsie, New York, where recent US Census data show that nearly 35 percent of children under 18 live in poverty. 

Charles Grandson meets with parents at the beginning of the school year

After graduating with a B.A. in history from Boston College in 2005, Grandson started his career as a high school humanities teacher at Brook Farm Academy (now West Roxbury Academy). After completing Students Achieve More (SAM), a two-year Boston Plan for Excellence leadership development program that qualified him for principal licensure, he accepted a position in 2010 as history program director at English High School. He also served on the troubled Boston school’s turnaround leadership team.

A year later, he became principal of the High School of Commerce in Springfield, Massachusetts, where, from 2011 to 2014, he worked to improve the school’s standing on the state’s performance accountability list. In 2014, 100 percent of the school’s seniors went on to college compared to 30 percent in 2011, according to Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education data. Grandson then accepted his first district-wide position as school redesign officer for Springfield Public Schools.

He earned his M.Ed. in curriculum and instruction in 2006 from the Lynch School, where he was a Donovan Urban Teaching Scholar and a Bank of America Scholar in Urban Education, a national fellowship awarded to talented graduate students who have demonstrated a commitment to urban education. In 2014, he graduated with an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the Lynch School’s Professional School Administrator Program.

Grandson credits his experiences in both programs for helping him develop what he describes as a leadership style that values an “out-of-the-box” approach to problem solving. “The Lynch School,” he explains, “gave me that ability to challenge my colleagues and say, let’s think about this in a different way.”

He believes that schools improve through a “whole school” approach, in which “everyone comes together to hear the same message about the core values of the school and the district.” For instance, at Commerce High, he invited not only teachers to major meetings but also guidance counselors, custodians, and cafeteria staff. He also gathered Commerce students at an assembly to introduce himself, though its administrators warned that this had never been done before for fear of behavior problems. Yet the students, reports Grandson, “actually listened. They were so quiet. It was about setting the expectation: we know you can do this.”

The new interim superintendent believes, too, that administrators in underperforming schools need to be visible to students, teachers, and staff, he says, “to show that they’re being supported.” At Malden, he’s begun a practice of visiting classrooms. Several mornings a week, Grandson heads to a Malden school to observe instructional practice along with the principal. It’s an effort, he says, “to motivate our principals to want to be in the classroom more.” Recently, during a community meeting, he invited the high school students in attendance to visit his office in Malden High School. The next day, he reports, a group of 10 dropped by. 

Over the past six years as an educational leader, Grandson has ensured that his work as a leader had a direct impact on the classroom. “I realize so vividly now,” he explains, “that all of these decisions—how you allocate resources, how you hire and develop and support teachers, how you help create a culture and show up every day as a leader—contributes to the experience that that young people have in school each day.”

—Alicia Potter

Photographs: Cimron Charles/Malden Public Schools