Opinion

opinion | Scott Given

Tom Menino’s undeniably strong legacy on education

Mayor Tom Menino spoke with students at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in 1995.

Globe file photo

Mayor Tom Menino spoke with students at the Jeremiah E. Burke High School in 1995.

TOM MENINO was rightly called the “education mayor” by many who recognized the breadth of school progress he championed during his two decades in office. Certainly the accomplishments achieved on his watch are many — historically low dropout rates, improved academic outcomes in many grades, full-day kindergarten available for all 5-year-olds, and rising college completion rates among Boston high school graduates, to name just a few. Menino’s legacy on education is undeniably strong.

But when the mayor called me in 2010, he was not thinking about his legacy. He was thinking about how to use his remaining years in office to bring a world-class education to as many of Boston’s at-risk children as possible. He had an idea, he said, and he wanted me to come to his office to hear about it.

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The mayor asked me if I’d help him fulfill his vision for transforming the city’s lowest-performing schools into extraordinary schools. As he emphatically made his pitch, the magnificence of Tom Menino emerged. He spoke from the heart about the plight that could await children without a high school diploma. He talked about all of Boston’s kids as if they were his own. He humbly acknowledged the limits of the progress some of the city’s schools had made during his first 17 years in office. He embraced personal accountability for the performance of Boston’s district schools.

While many other big city mayors viewed education as a political “third rail,” and thus kept their distance, here was our mayor, with his sleeves rolled up, literally, as he orchestrated a plan by which the long-struggling Gavin Middle School would become UP Academy Boston, a school he envisioned that would give students access to great teachers, an extended school day, enrichment and arts, and a wide network of supports to ensure their academic progress.

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With a pointed determination clearly sharpened through many years of beating the odds, he told me: “The children at the Gavin will learn.”

About a year later, shortly after UP Academy Boston opened its doors, the mayor came to visit. Among a throng of questions being tossed at him by an enthusiastic group of students, one young boy asked him to name his favorite part of the job. “Moments like this,” he said, holding back a tear. His love for our students was palpable.

During his last term in office, Menino could have easily leaned on the educational progress that had been made throughout his tenure to avoid difficult decisions and challenging confrontations. He could have worked to keep the city’s most struggling schools out of the spotlight. He did not. Instead, he embraced the risky proposition of aggressively turning around low-performing schools because he knew the fate of hundreds of children were at stake. The students at UP Academy Boston and the city’s other high-performing district schools are Tom Menino’s legacy. His vision and his leadership resulted in their lives being forever changed.

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“Judge me harshly” by how our schools are doing, Menino famously said in 1996. No harsh judgment here, Mr. Mayor. On behalf of our city’s students and their families, we are eternally grateful.

Scott Given, Chief Executive Officer of the UP Education Network.
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