SALEM — John R. Connolly takes two stairs at a time, bounding into an elementary school with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder as the sun sets over a soccer field.
Connolly drove here himself. There was no entourage of aides, no police driver. His Cheerios-encrusted sport utility vehicle had no flashing blue lights to avoid time-sucking traffic.
Life could have been different. If he had persuaded 2,445 more people to vote for him in November 2013 and not for Martin J. Walsh, Connolly would be mayor of Boston. Instead, he finds himself hustling past children’s artwork at Bentley Elementary, a turnaround school that is home to some of Salem’s most disadvantaged students.
Connolly crosses the threshold into a bright classroom. Thirteen teachers applaud. Like a good politician, he had bought them lunch earlier from Chipotle.
Since August, Connolly has routinely made this trip, working with these teachers to set up home visits with parents — all parents, not just those whose children are struggling.
He is a man on a new mission, with a familiar cause. Connolly has established an education nonprofit that aims to forge bonds between parents and teachers, and, in the process, forge better schools. He named it for the year the Massachusetts Legislature declared education a community responsibility.
“We’re called 1647,” Connolly told the teachers. “You were our pilot.”
Right now, 1647 is just Connolly and a paper-strewn cubicle in a third-floor office on School Street, a few blocks from Boston City Hall. It is an incubator project housed in the National Center on Time & Learning, an initiative cofounded by Chris Gabrieli pushing for longer school days.
Connolly has ambitious plans: He hopes his organization will expand to five to 10 schools by spring. He started in Bentley Elementary, where echoes of his mayoral stump speech can be heard as he launches a discussion of home visits.
“I was in the classroom for a few years,” Connolly said. “Not long enough to say it was my profession, but long enough to work with some really great teachers and appreciate how hard teachers work.”
For the 41-year-old Connolly, whose pedigree and political fortune once seemed destined for the mayor’s office, it has been a difficult climb. One thing is clear: Political office seems to be a thing of the past.
“There is zero percent chance I’m running for mayor at the end of this term. Zero percent,” Connolly said when asked by a reporter. “I get along with the mayor. We talk at least once a month. I want him to do well. I’m rooting for him.”
In Boston, politics can be viciously tribal. Candidates often agree on issues, giving way to schoolyard squabbles over endorsements and alliances. That can make municipal campaigns brutally personal. For Connolly, the mayor’s race left wounds like politics never had before.
Criticism stung that he had never been a real teacher. (“I absolutely had,” Connolly said.) The worst, he says, were attacks from a group of parents who distorted who he was, suggesting he had a plot to privatize Boston public schools. (He has two children in a public school.)
‘There is zero percent chance I’m running for mayor at the end of this term. Zero percent.’
“It was painful,” Connolly said. “I did nothing until [the end of] January. November and December after the election I was just junk.”
He reconnected with his family. He had a baby girl at home who did not recognize his face. His 5- and 6-year-olds thought dad was some guy they saw for 15 minutes at a time. Connolly and his wife began talking about next steps.
“The only rule I had,” Connolly said, “is I didn’t want to do anything political, and I didn’t want to practice law.”
Job offers came from law firms, a few private businesses, and existing education nonprofits. Nothing moved him. Connolly tinkered with his own startup. He thought about a Yelp-like website that would allow parents to review schools. He considered an initiative to organize parents.
To pay his mortgage, Connolly did contract work for the National Center on Time & Learning and began drawing a salary in October. Gabrieli had been a political patron. He has helped Connolly in the transition to postpolitical life. It was Gabrieli who suggested Connolly see the work of the Flamboyan Foundation, which has been training and paying teachers to make home visits in Washington, D.C., public schools.
In spring, Connolly attended a Flamboyan training, which began with a parent telling a roomful of teachers, “I used to hate every one of you.” The mother recounted that she heard from school only when her children were in trouble, and she felt judged as a parent.
A home visit changed her perspective. The agenda was simple: Talk about your daughter’s hopes and dreams. It made the mother realize that a teacher cared.
“I was so struck by this parent telling her story,” Connolly said. “That was the first time since the election I felt like I knew what I wanted to do.”
Boston’s almost-mayor was off. Gabrieli provided a cubicle and what he described as “modest” seed money, declining to specify the amount. Gabrieli, who made an unsuccessful bid for governor, knows what it is like when, he said, “the single thing most people know about you is you didn’t win your election.”
Connolly has thrived, Gabrieli says, and is “proving himself to be an excellent social entrepreneur.”
“This is not the most glamorous job he could have, and it’s certainly not the easiest,” Gabrieli said. “But it’s a really sincere expression of his values.”
Connolly roped in Ann Walsh, his former chief of staff, whom he hopes to make the second employee. He is pitching the idea for his nonprofit, raising $150,000 toward his first-year goal of $250,000.
Connolly used PowerPoint to design 1647’s first awards: certificates that recognize a teacher as a “home-visit hero.”
Flamboyan brought a team to Salem to conduct training. The school set a goal of visiting half the parents in third, fourth, and fifth grades. Teachers worked in pairs, meeting parents whenever possible in their homes.
Some parents resisted, so teachers met them at a Dunkin’ Donuts or a soccer practice, but never at school. They got together on weekends and evenings. Teachers were compensated with a stipend designated for professional development.
Rules were straightforward: No pens or paper. No discussion of school rules. Meet on parent’s turf, not at school.
At Bentley Elementary, Connolly listens to teachers recounting their experiences. Bonds formed with parents. Students showed teachers their bedrooms. They discovered reasons why a child might lack self-confidence and developed strategies to use at home to help students focus. They learned students’ jersey numbers in youth football and their affinity for My Little Pony.
Marie Belony, a parent with a fourth-grader at Bentley, told parents she thought teachers were crazy, asking to come to her house after school. The visit, she says, lasted two hours.
“They asked me how Annabelle likes to learn,” Belony said. “No teacher has ever asked me that before. I was really blown away. I never felt like I had a partnership with a teacher before.”