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Bostonians of the Year

Sung-Joon Pai: The educator who refused to give up

He’s director of a program that takes in high-schoolers abandoned by every other school, and he’s willing to fight for it.

Boston, MA - 11/18/2016 - Educator Sunny Pai poses for a portrait at Charlestown High School in Boston, MA on November 18, 2016. (Keith Bedford/Globe Staff) Topic: Reporter:
Keith Bedford/Globe Staff
Sung-Joon “Sunny” Pai is the program’s director of Diploma Plus, an alternative high school operating within Charlestown High.

Back in February, things looked bleak for the roughly 50 kids in Diploma Plus, an alternative high school operating within Charlestown High. Diploma Plus is like a reverse magnet school: All its students have failed at least one year at a Boston high school. Their last-shot program was on the Boston School Committee’s list of budget cuts.

Then Sung-Joon “Sunny” Pai, the program’s director, made an impassioned speech at a School Committee meeting. He reminded them that Diploma Plus takes kids whose schools have given up on them and helps them earn diplomas (60, so far). Emphasis on the “earn.” “Our students get frustrated when their English teacher makes them revise a paper seven times,” Pai said, his voice choked with emotion.

Pai’s testimony, along with that of teachers, parents, and students from the program, worked: Diploma Plus had some funding restored; additional support came from Liberty Mutual, a longtime partner of Charlestown High.

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Despite public praise, including a $100,000 award to use for the program from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation, 41-year-old Pai prefers to focus on his work. “The attention’s a little embarrassing,” says Pai, who also heads two Charlestown High programs for students learning English. “There’s so many other people doing amazing work.”  

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