The debate over how best to improve urban school systems in major American cities is robust and complicated. But one Boston community found a way to transform public education almost by accident. For the neighborhood of Charlestown, it turned out that success came as a result of a group of new moms looking for a night out without husbands or kids.
Ten years ago, most Charlestown families did not send their kids to the Boston Public Schools, opting for parochial or private schools instead. Many more residents moved out of the city as their kids were turning elementary-school age. For decades, this pattern had defined not only Boston, but cities throughout the country. Slowly, however, families began returning to cities.
In Charlestown, newcomers began arriving for different reasons. For Katie Bigelow, it was her husband’s short walk to his downtown law office. Nea Hoyt’s in-laws owned a local business. As a college student, Kristina Gallant fell in love with the neighborhood while visiting from Chicago and wound up transferring to Boston University. Both Bettine Boyd, a concierge at the Four Seasons, and Suzanne Morris, a sales executive at Digital, loved the ocean and wanted to commute to work using the water shuttle. Whatever their different reasons for moving to Charlestown, they all had one thing in common. They all became mothers in 1996.
It wasn’t long before they started running into each other: at the playgrounds at the John Harvard Mall or the Navy Yard; over bagels and coffee at the original Sorelle’s on Monument Ave.; or just pushing strollers along Main Street. And so, logically, they decided to form a play group for their kids.
Long New England winters, limited sunlight, and cabin-fever conditions can make caring for a newborn difficult for the most patient of parents. In response, the new group of friends started “Mom’s Night Out,” a regular visit to one of the many local restaurants, and a chance to get out of the house and blow off some steam.
Soon word was out. Other mothers began joining the group. Eventually it became too large for restaurants, so they began taking turns hosting at each other’s homes — pizza from Figs and plenty of wine. At some point the group began to talk about other things they could do beyond social activities. They turned their focus to fixing up playgrounds, starting an Easter egg hunt, and an event called “Touch-a-Truck Day.”
And their numbers grew.
Like all changing neighborhoods, Charlestown is comprised of both new residents and old; those that were there long before, and those who just arrived. For too many communities these differences serve as divisions — permanent chasms to progress due to parochialism. To be sure, Charlestown, whose high school team is called “The Townies,” has had its share. But something happens when mothers are in charge: Pettiness gives way to pragmatism.
And there were ambassadors among the old Charlestown families. Jack Kelly — very much a townie — grew up along the newcomers and couldn’t have been more definitive: “They were city kids just like me.” Joe “Gunn” McGonagle sold real estate and served as a bridge to many. Doug McDonald helped organize events for the kids. And Susan Charbonnier helped with the school.
The school was the Warren-Prescott, an overlooked elementary school, to which a small few began to turn their attention. For them, they saw a diamond in the rough. More importantly, they saw a chance to slow the flow of their friends leaving their neighborhood. They found an advocate in the principal, Domenic Amara, who relished the sense of energy in the neighborhood and channeled it effectively. The parking lot that was once full of potholes soon became a place for children to play. Small projects gave way to larger ones.
It didn’t take long for City Hall to hear about the growing group of active mothers from Charlestown. By now it had swelled into the hundreds, and their focus had turned to the school, which they hoped to expand to K-8. But they would have to show their support by turning out residents at a public meeting. This is something the moms had gotten good at.
The community meeting was on Nov. 13, 2003. It was pouring rain, but the room was filled. The moms had done their job. When the mayor took to the stage, there was little question that the expansion would happen. Within ten years the percentage of Charlestown families sending their kids to public schools jumped from under 50 to over 80.
Cities, and their neighborhoods, are growing organisms. Some would want them to remain exactly the same. But just as we may wax nostalgic for the days when street vendors sold roasted chestnuts on the side of the road, we need to acknowledge that change happens, and often, that change is good. For Charlestown, it meant allowing a group of newcomers to stumble into something very good indeed.Mike Ross writes regularly for the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @mikeforboston.