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Jinny Chalmers, school principal who championed diversity in the classroom and life, dies at 70

Ms. Chalmers retired in 2017 as principal of the Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School in Mattapan.

Teacher by teacher, child by child, Jinny Chalmers turned Young Achievers Science and Mathematics Pilot School into a place that opened the world to students who walked through the doors.

“Diversity was always her top thing,” said Carol Murray, a former longtime teacher and lower school coordinator at Young Achievers. “She always was recruiting to try to find ways to make the building more diverse, not just in appearance, but in thought.”

Knowing that achieving such a goal was often challenging for everyone at the school, Ms. Chalmers ended nearly all conversations with “keep the faith.”

Those simple words of encouragement continue to guide the extended family of educators she built for two decades as principal, and her friends and loved ones have found a sliver of solace in repeating her favorite phrase ever since she died in Milton Nov. 17 after being struck by a truck while riding a bicycle.

For Ms. Chalmers, who retired in 2017, the Mattapan school’s essential mission was to provide an exemplary education, principally for students of color, that was equal to what children had access to in more affluent, predominantly white suburbs.

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She often gave tours to families of prospective students, and given the school’s “reputation of offering high-quality instruction,” a significant percentage of applicants were from white families, recalled her wife, Ilene Carver, a longtime educator.

Ms. Chalmers, she added, “would matter-of-factly talk about the mission of the school and tell them, ‘If you believe in this mission and want to be an ally, you are welcome to apply.’ “

To foster and encourage diversity, Ms. Chalmers provided support to all she brought into the Young Achievers family, while listening carefully to students, faculty, and support staff.

“You couldn’t be in Jinny’s company without feeling like you were being seen,” said Lynne Godfrey, a former mathematics director and director of upper school at Young Achievers. “For me, as a Black woman, knowing there was someone who saw me, who heard what I had to say, who thought my ideas were important, meant a lot.”

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Those at the school saw Ms. Chalmers, too — sometimes doing things other school principals would hastily delegate.

“I remember some students messed up the boys’ bathroom,” one woman wrote in a Facebook post. “She could call the custodian to fix it but she folded her sleeves up and did it herself.”

If a teacher needed to rearrange a classroom, Ms. Chalmers showed up on a Saturday in sweat pants and sneakers to help move furniture. If someone was going through a stressful time, she’d cover recess supervision to carve out a break.

Yet somehow Ms. Chalmers “was somebody who made really, really long days look easy,” said Shakera Ford Walker, a former Young Achievers teacher who is now an assistant superintendent of teacher leadership and development for the Boston Public Schools.

Ms. Chalmers left “a legacy of love, a legacy of hope,” she said, adding that “in many ways, her legacy is one that is all about inspiring others and ensuring that we keep our eyes on the prize, and that prize is thinking about the ways we’re educating students.”

“She was always giving of herself,” said Mona Ford Walker, a former Young Achievers teacher who later served as principal of Winship Elementary School in Brighton and is now pursuing a doctorate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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“The depth and the breadth of her work are immeasurable,” she added. “I can only hope to impact the number of children and families and educators that she did in her life.”

Virginia Chalmers, known to all as Jinny, was born in Gambier, Ohio, in 1950.

Her mother was Carol Bloom and her father was John Chalmers, a college economics professor whose work brought the family to Binghamton, N.Y., Laramie, Wyo., and Manhattan, Kan., while she was growing up as the youngest of three siblings.

She first arrived in Greater Boston in the late 1960s to attend Tufts University, from which she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in child study and a master’s in early childhood education.

“Jinny was an early childhood educator at heart,” Mona Ford Walker said. “If you wanted to see her light up, put her in a classroom with kindergartners. She’d be on the floor reading with them and playing with them.”

Ms. Chalmers taught at the Eliot-Pearson Children’s School at Tufts and in the Cambridge Public Schools early in her career, along with lecturing or teaching at Tufts, Lesley College, and Wheelock College.

In the early to mid-1990s, she was dean of the division of children’s programs at Bank Street College of Education in New York City, and was an educational consultant.

Young Achievers hired her in 1997 to be principal of a school that “focused on social justice and high academic achievement,” she noted in her resume.

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Some of that high achievement occurred outside of the classroom. Students’ trips included visits to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, to New Hampshire’s White Mountains, to Costa Rica. Ms. Chalmers always found a way to fund projects and programs that weren’t covered by a public school budget.

Teachers and staff found themselves side-by-side with their principal in such endeavors. Ms. Chalmers was always open to their suggestions of how to improve the educational experience.

“You’d leave a staff meeting and you’d feel totally fired up because she told us every week, every day, ‘This is life and death for the kids. That’s our job,’ “ said Annie Shah-Solle, a former Young Achievers teacher who is now at the Ellison/Parks school.

Ms. Chalmers, who lived in Dorchester, was a teacher at home, too — to her daughter Maya Feller and grandchildren, Parker and Anaïs, in Brooklyn, N.Y., to her children Andy Klein of Berkeley, Calif., and Rachel Klein of Los Angeles.

“As a mom myself, I try to emulate her regularly,” Maya said.

While preparing a talk for work recently, she added, “I had written that I grew up in a house that was led by fiercely radical women, and my mom, Jinny, allowed me from a young age to dream the possibility of my future self unapologetically.”

When people would suggest to Ms. Chalmers that she was a progressive, “My mom would say, ‘No, no, no, I’m not progressive. I’m radical,’ ” Maya said.

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In the two weeks since Ms. Chalmers died, teachers and staff at Young Achievers, former colleagues, and friends have gathered for a vigil and contributed to Facebook remembrances. A celebration of her life and work will be announced.

In retirement, Ms. Chalmers mentored aspiring principals through the School Leadership Program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and participated in the Trauma and Learning Policy Initiative through Massachusetts Advocates for Children.

“She had a deep and abiding commitment to family, and also to the belief that what gives life meaning in addition to family is doing everything you possibly can to fight for equity and justice,” Carver said.

Ms. Chalmers, she added, also had an “exuberance for life,” which was clear when they visited their grandchildren in Brooklyn. Ms. Chalmers honored the children’s wish to go to the beach, despite the approach of a fierce storm.

“The winds were just howling,” Carver said. “We set foot on the sand and some park rangers came up and said, ‘Ladies, this beach is closed. There’s a hurricane coming.’ That’s what it would take to deter her from carrying out a plan that she wanted to accomplish.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.