In an often-quoted State of the City speech in 1996, delivered in the auditorium of the troubled Jeremiah Burke High School, Mayor Thomas M. Menino challenged residents to “judge me harshly” if his overhaul of the city’s schools failed. It was one of the most passionate speeches he made in his two-decade quest to be known as the “education mayor.”
As Menino prepares to leave office next January, he can proudly point to an array of impressive accomplishments: historically low dropout rates, skyrocketing standardized test scores in many grades, full-day kindergarten available for all 5-year-olds, rising college completion rates among Boston high school graduates, and extended days in dozens of schools, to name just a few.
Another crowning moment occurred this month when the School Committee approved a new way of assigning students to schools, fulfilling a promise Menino made last year to let more students attend schools closer to their homes.
But notable problems persist. Stubborn gaps in achievement continue among students of different backgrounds; too few third-graders can read independently; and too many school buildings are deteriorating.
Public dissatisfaction with the school system remains relatively high. A Globe poll this week found that 42 percent of respondents with children considered leaving the city because of the schools. That rate mirrors similar findings of two Globe polls during the last mayoral race in 2009, when it ranged between 39 percent and half of the respondents.
“There is more work that needs to be done, but he has provided a strong foundation from which to build,” said Kim Janey, senior project director at Massachusetts Advocates for Children, a Boston nonprofit that works on behalf of disadvantaged children, and that has pushed aggressively for more quality schools. “He has established a legacy in which he can be proud.”
Debate persists about how Menino will be remembered .
“You won’t be able to draw that conclusion for some years, but he has a shot to be the education mayor,” said Paul Grogan, president of the Boston Foundation, a charitable organization that works with the Boston public schools, who applauded Menino for taking on the city’s teachers union.
Others have already bestowed the title on Menino.
“We still have work to do in the schools, but there should be no question in our minds that Menino is the education mayor,” said Laura Perille, executive director of EdVestors, a Boston education nonprofit.
Through the years, Menino has garnered national attention for his unwavering commitment to overhauling schools. It is a task few mayors have been willing to take on; fundamentally changing a city school system, where the problems are often entangled in the impoverished lives of many of its students, can be frustratingly slow, making it politically risky.
Many mayors prefer to focus on erecting skyscrapers, sprucing up parks or keeping streets clean, tasks that Menino has tackled with equal zeal.
“A lot of it has to do with political will and courage, and those are two things Mayor Menino has demonstrated amply in Boston,” said Gregory McGinity, managing director of policy for the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation, a Los Angeles education nonprofit that named Boston the best urban school system in 2006.
Menino is one of the few mayors nationwide who wield considerable control over their city’s school system. Unlike many other urban mayors, he has the power to appoint the School Committee and plays a key role in selecting the superintendent.
That power has brought stability to the running of Boston’s school system that is often the envy of other cities. Superintendent Carol R. Johnson has been on the job for more than six years, while her predecessor, Thomas Payzant, served for 11 years.
“I have to say over the last six years I’ve had the extraordinary opportunity to work with someone who deeply cares about education for all children in the city,” Johnson said. “He has been one of the strongest champions of the importance of access to quality and excellence” for all schoolchildren.
Menino often talks about how he could relate to the challenges many Boston students encounter in getting through school and earning a degree in college. Menino was a C student in high school and enrolled in the University of Massachusetts Boston nearly 30 years after graduating.
“I’m the guy who came by his education the hard way, and that, more than anything else, qualifies me for this job,” he said one January night in 1996 when he unveiled his education agenda.
He also said that night, “I want to be judged as your mayor by what happens now in the Boston public schools.”
Menino’s quest to be the education mayor has been aided by two notable outside factors. In 1993, the same year Menino entered office, the Legislature passed the historic Education Reform Act, which ushered in higher academic standards in schools across the state and a high-stakes test students must pass to graduate. Then nearly a decade later, Washington enacted the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalized districts that failed to have enough students performing at grade level.
Today, Menino is not fully satisfied with the school system, even as he boasts about accomplishments. He has vowed to keep a focus on education in the coming months, and is trying to push legislation on Beacon Hill that would allow more schools to operate with greater latitude from teacher contract rules so they can lengthen days and hire the teachers they want. The move will again put him at odds with the Boston Teachers Union, which opposes the legislation.
Such tenacity reflects a more aggressive approach Menino has taken in the latter part of his tenure in overhauling schools, after years of shepherding incremental change. Menino shocked the political and education establishments four years ago when he reversed years of opposition and embraced an expansion of charter schools, which rarely employ unionized teachers, angering the teachers union.
But Richard Stutman, the union president, carries no ill will toward the mayor, even though he thinks Menino’s support of charter schools and his new legislative agendas are mistakes.
“We certainly appreciate his overall concern for public education and his cheerleading for the Boston public schools, which is deserved,” Stutman said. “He will go down favorably in the history books as a pro-public-education mayor.”James Vaznis can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globevaznis.