Brenda Cassellius calls herself a Head Start baby. Even now, more than four decades after she left the program, she remembers reading the book “Harold and the Purple Crayon” over and over again, devouring the story of the little boy who wants to go for a walk in the moonlight and, facing a blank page, draws a path.
Now 51, she has spent decades in other classrooms and school systems, most recently serving as the statewide commissioner of education in Minnesota. But it is her experience as a poor, black child in a Head Start classroom in Minneapolis that she says defines her values and her vision for education.
“I learned all of the wonderful things about being a learner in Head Start,” Cassellius said this week, during a brief break from being grilled by parents, teachers and school officials.
Cassellius is currently a finalist in two public job searches: She is vying to lead Boston’s public schools, and she’s also in the running to be Michigan state superintendent. The Boston School Committee is expected to vote for superintendent on May 1, a week before Michigan is scheduled to make its decision.
The superintendent’s job has bedeviled a long line of predecessors, including Carol Johnson, Cassellius’s mentor, who retired in 2013, two years before the end of her contract, following her husband’s death.
Johnson says Cassellius, who worked with her in Memphis and Minnesota, is prepared for the intense politics the Boston job entails — the superintendent must please parents, community groups, and the teacher’s union, while remaining in the favor of Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who wields broad authority over the schools.
“I would say that Boston is a city that demands that stakeholders be involved in decision-making,” Johnson said in an interview. “She understands that there are sometimes competing interests.”
Cassellius, a political appointee for the past eight years, says she can weather it.
“You just don’t last that long if you can’t handle the politics,” she said in her public interview on Tuesday of her stint in Minnesota.
Cassellius grew up in a housing project in Minneapolis and attended public and Catholic schools. Her mother, who didn’t graduate from high school, had her first daughter at age 16 and gave birth to Brenda four years later. Cassellius still holds onto a photograph of her younger self that appeared in The Minneapolis Star in 1977, showing her sitting on a street corner with a fistful of flowers in her hand that she was selling to make money.
Cassellius is African-American but also “a quarter Lebanese, and an eighth Irish and an eighth German,” as she told the School Committee. When she was a child, she said, people were unsure how to categorize her because she was biracial.
“I spent most of my life people asking me, ‘What are you?’” she said.
After high school, Cassellius got a full scholarship to Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota, but left after a group of white boys shouted a racial slur at her. She transferred to the University of Minnesota, where she became pregnant with her first child and earned her degree. (She later married and had two children with her husband, Jason.)
She rose through the Minnesota school system, first as a special education paraprofessional, then as a social studies teacher and assistant principal in St. Paul, where she met Johnson. When Johnson moved to Memphis to become superintendent there, she recruited Cassellius to work with her and eventually tapped her to lead the middle schools.
While in Memphis, Johnson directed Cassellius to end corporal punishment in the schools. That battle sheds some light on how Cassellius might confront politically treacherous issues in Boston.
“Quite frankly, it cut across the cultural norms of the city,” said Bernadeia Johnson, a former superintendent who worked with Cassellius in St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Memphis. “We had one board member say, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ There was a lot of pushback from board members and community members.”
She helped lead Carol Johnson’s campaign to change discipline practices in schools, holding community meetings, talking with parents, compiling data, and offering teachers new strategies for handling disruptions. Ultimately, the city school board narrowly voted to ban the practice.
A few years after Cassellius returned to Minnesota, Mark Dayton appointed her to be state education commissioner. She was the first person of color to hold the job.
She started as commissioner on a Monday, he said. On Thursday, she called him from Perham, a tiny town 180 miles northwest of Minneapolis, where she had traveled in the dead of winter to visit schools.
“You have to get a map of Minnesota to appreciate Perham,” Dayton said. “She’s very hands-on, very involved.”
In her public interviews, she said she distributed her personal cellphone number widely.
“I thought that she was a very good listener,” said Denise Specht, the president of Education Minnesota, the state’s teachers union.
Others in the state were less impressed. Daniel Sellers, the executive director of a statewide nonprofit focused on education equity called EdAllies, said Cassellius had some laudable achievements as commissioner, including funding all-day kindergarten and increasing funding for public schools. But, he said, as her tenure went on, she hesitated to ruffle feathers and was more accessible to “entrenched political interests” like the teacher’s union than to local community groups.
“I think a lot of what she did was politically safe,” he said.
Other critics pointed to the lack of progress on desegregation in Minnesota under Cassellius’s watch. In 2015, a group of families sued the state, naming Cassellius in her role as education commissioner, alleging that Minnesota was allowing its schools to be illegally segregated. The case is set to go to trial next year.
“It’s a situation she inherited, and I don’t blame her for creating it or causing it, but she has done nothing to improve it,” said Daniel Shulman, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs.
Cassellius said she’s been committed throughout her career to tackling segregation, attempting to make charters subject to integration rules and briefly serving as superintendent of an integration district. Finding a solution, she said, was the legislature’s responsibility.
“We didn’t always get everything we wanted,” she wrote in an e-mail. “But we made progress.”