Michelle Wu felt the same relief many parents feel when they land a seat at the school they want for their young kids. "I cried," she recalled.
And what about Annissa Essaibi George? She's at the other end of her kids’ schooling, with four boys who all landed coveted spots in the city's exam schools. More relief.
If navigating the Boston school system bureaucracy feels like a second full-time job, this year’s candidates for mayor want to help. And that’s a big change for a city that hasn't had a sitting mayor with a child in the public schools since Ray Flynn's tenure as mayor ended nearly 30 years ago. All but one of his children attended Catholic schools, according to his wife Catherine Flynn.
The candidate moms are vying for the mayor’s seat, promising to fix what their male predecessors couldn’t. Essaibi George campaigns with the slogan, “Teacher, Mother, Mayor” — in thick Bostonese — while Wu urges voters to “put a Boston Public Schools Mom” in charge.
"Both women have truly brought the whole of their lived experience to the campaign trail," said Amanda Hunter, executive director of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge.
Hunter says the days of women candidates wearing double-breasted jackets and posing in front of giant mahogany desks to be taken as seriously as men are over. In this mayor's race, mom-ness is front and center.
"We know from our research that voters generally believe women are more in touch with kitchen-table issues," Hunter said. "So knowing that both women have children in the public school system shows voters that both women have a personal, different kind of stake in the school system than previous male mayors."
Leading a 125-school district with deep racial inequities that have persisted for decades is a daunting task for anyone, particularly in the pandemic, as student absenteeism has soared, creating new educational challenges.
On the campaign trail, Essaibi George touts her past experience as a Boston public school teacher in East Boston and wisened local who knows the system’s flaws.
"What I think our kids need — and our families need — is just greater stability across the district," she said in an interview with GBH News. "Stability and predictability."
Essaibi George still lives in Dorchester and has close political ties to former Mayor Marty Walsh, who she knew growing up. Her eldest son, as well as her triplets, went to Pope John Paul II Catholic Academy in Dorchester, the same elementary school she attended.
They later transferred to the Oliver Hazard Perry School, a majority white K-8 public school in South Boston.
"What I liked about the Perry is it's a little bit of a smaller school — pretty tight-knit community," she said. "And [there was] an opportunity to like build relationships with ... the teachers and with the school leader."
It was also a successful pathway to the city's exam schools, which teach grades 7-12. Two of her boys attend Boston Latin School, like their father Doug George; the other two are at Boston Latin Academy.
Essaibi George supports retaining the entrance exam for those schools and the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science, which she attended when it was Boston Technical High School.
Wu also supports keeping the exam at the city’s exam schools. But, she adds, any discussion of the exam schools must be part of a planning process to reform and improve the other 25 city high schools.
“We are a city where the barrier has never been financial resources or expertise or helping hands ready to partner from the community’s side. The resource barrier has always been around political will," Wu said in an interview with GBH News.
Wu was raised by Taiwanese parents in Chicago's suburbs. Her story is also well-known: she became her sister’s legal guardian in Boston while attending Harvard Law when their mother was struggling with mental illness.
Her young sons are now in kindergarten and first grade at the Charles Sumner School in Roslindale, where more than half of the students are Hispanic, a fifth are white and 1% are Asian. Sumner is “meeting or exceeding” state targets, but it also feeds into the Irving Middle School, which is ranked in the bottom 10% of schools in the state and is slated for closure in 2022.
Wu, like Essaibi George, has a long list of policy ideas, in line with her mentor Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Her plans include reevaluating the student school assignment system and creating a "children's cabinet" to streamline family services and make them more broadly available.
"My two boys have a lot of years ahead of them in BPS, and it brings such an urgency to making sure that we are moving things forward and changing these structures as quickly as possible," she said.
So while the school system has worked for Essaibi George and her kids, in some ways Wu's journey as a BPS parent is just beginning.