Dissecting Boston School Board Meetings, One Podcast Episode at a Time

“Jill and Ross seem to have been very familiar with what’s been going on at BPS for years,” said Katsompenakis, who has a seventh grader and a fifth grader. The co-hosts “will say of a problem, ‘Oh, a year ago, it happened.’ They provide context for someone like me who may not have been aware.

With episodes ranging from 20 minutes to just under an hour, Shah and Wilson aim to demystify what happens in typically dense meetings. There’s a careful but opinionated analysis – in a recent episode, Wilson expressed slight outrage at the lack of public discussion of declining test scores among BPS English learners. — but the hosts shun political pundits. Instead, they provide meeting highlights that often include audio clips recorded during the meetings, provide relevant context to long-term issues, and attempt to explain complicated and jargon-filled education policy discussions in a digestible format.

Basically, the podcast, which was recently available in Spanish as “Anoche en el Comité Escolar”, provides a crucial and timely service to Bostonians. And that illuminates the black hole that BPS is often perceived to be. The podcast can also be seen as a local manifestation of a heated national debate and an active trend: parents are demanding greater accountability from their school boards. We saw it last month when Boston voters resoundingly approved a nonbinding ballot question to move from an appointed school board to an elected board. (Katsompenakis voted yes.)

The podcast, which turns three next month, is the brainchild of Shah Family Foundation, created by Jill and her husband, Wayfair co-founder Niraj Shah. Wilson has served as the foundation’s executive director since its inception in 2017; Previously, he spent over 15 years working at BPS in a variety of roles, including as a teacher, principal and administrator, most recently as Deputy Superintendent. Jill Shah is the president of the foundation, which has partnered with the City of Boston to build kitchens in Boston schools and the City of Chelsea during the coronavirus pandemic to help fund a groundbreaking universal income pilot program guaranteed, among other philanthropic initiatives.

The idea for the podcast came naturally. Shah watched school committee meetings to find out what system issues the foundation could potentially help. “I used to come in, after the meeting I just listened to, and just pepper [Wilson] with questions,” Shah said. “If they are talking about buses, what data are they presenting? Was there any data they left out? Were there questions that weren’t being asked? And it was so interesting to get this inside baseball view of what happened. We said, “We should amplify this conversation.” All parents should be aware of this understanding of what really happens at meetings [where members] make decisions that affect 54,000 children.

To be clear, the school committee meetings are recorded and available for viewing after they have taken place. But that’s not practical, Katsompenakis told me. “It’s not edited. If you just want to hear about the budget or a certain presentation, you have to find out for yourself. »

John Mudd, a Boston education activist, has been a fixture at committee meetings since the early 1990s. Mudd did not listen to the podcast, but he said the committee needs to “be innovative in developing ways for increased dialogue with parents, stakeholders, advocates and experts”. Recently, the district has made investments to provide language interpretation at meetings, which Mudd called a positive.

“Last Night at School Committee,” which just teamed up with WBUR to expand its reach, has been downloaded more than 1,200 times in the past month, according to a foundation spokesperson. The figure represents a doubling of viewership from this time last year, the spokesperson said.

As for the future of BPS, Shah said she would like to see the district in numbers. “How many children are there in each building?” How many classrooms are used or overused or underused? Wilson would like more sunshine on how the district is spending federal stimulus dollars. And they would both like to see Mayor Michelle Wu finally implement the promise of universal pre-kindergarten, restore a senior cabinet or some sort of leadership structure where the voices of school leaders can be heard and invest in high schools. open registration.

And yet, change will require grassroots engagement, which means reaching parents where they are. Mindless minutiae and bureaucratic language don’t work. Context yes. That’s what makes “Last Night at School Committee” so vital.

Marcela García can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcel_elisa.