Nearly four years ago, Rafaela Polanco was afraid to speak before the Boston School Committee.
Living in a homeless shelter, Polanco worried shelter leaders would consider her a rabble-rouser and kick her out for requesting Spanish language interpretation at the district meetings. The lack of translation shut her out from any meaningful participation in the school system.
Now, she’s on the School Committee, making changes that she hopes will open the doors to more parents like her.
“I thought advocating for my child’s school would make me vulnerable,” Polanco said in Spanish from her sunny kitchen in a South Boston public housing building. “But then I did it. And nothing happened to me ... so I kept going.”
Polanco, a 45-year-old naturalized US citizen from the Dominican Republic, was appointed to the Boston School Committee in July, becoming the first person in Boston and believed to be one of a handful nationwide who requires simultaneous interpretation to serve on a school board. Research shows representation matters. Her presence on the board is expected to provide more underserved families access to district materials and encourage them to become more involved.
The presence of Latinos on California school boards has led to greater investment in buildings in Latino-majority districts. Racial and ethnic diversity on school committees has also been shown to lead to fewer suspensions.
“Representation is not symbolic,” said Brett Fischer, a postdoctoral researcher at U.C. Berkeley’s California Policy Lab who studied the impact of Latino school board presence on school spending. “It does have real bite.”
Acting Mayor Kim Janey appointed Polanco, hoping it would guarantee that families and students who don’t speak English “have information in real time.” Nearly half of BPS students spoke another language before learning English.
Polanco’s experience living in public housing and organizing Spanish-speaking mothers also mattered to Janey. “Making sure that the people who are most impacted by the School Committee’s decisions are represented on that body was very important to me as mayor of Boston,” she said this week.
But English language fluency isn’t the only thing that sets Polanco apart from the dozens of lawyers, executives, and professors who’ve served on the body for the past two decades. Polanco can relate to the majority of parents in a district where nearly two-thirds of children are economically disadvantaged.
“She brings a voice that was missing from the committee,” said School Committee member Michael O’Neill.
Jeri Robinson, who chairs the committee agreed. “We’re hoping she gets reappointed.” Polanco’s term ends next month with the election of a new mayor of Boston.
Polanco’s 2015 arrival in Boston seems almost as unlikely as her ascent to the School Committee.
After losing her husband in a motorcycle accident in 2012, when her son Orlando was 2 years old, Polanco had begun to get her footing again. She was thriving professionally in Puerto Rico, where she was one of the top Honda salespeople in San Juan, earning more than $100,000 a year. (Polanco trained as a lawyer in the Dominican Republic but wasn’t able to practice in Puerto Rico, where she moved in 2009.)
But her financial stability took a turn when her father developed a lung infection in 2014 and didn’t have health insurance after moving to Puerto Rico six months earlier. Polanco spent all of her earnings on his treatment. Doctors in Puerto Rico said they couldn’t do anything more for him and he wouldn’t survive a plane trip to the United States. But Polanco took him anyway.
Polanco had a friend in Gloucester who could briefly host them. Doctors there saved her father, and her parents found a homeless shelter in that city. Polanco hoped for the same but was assigned to a YMCA shelter on Huntington Avenue in Boston.
From 2015 to 2018, Polanco made the best of her small apartment. The YMCA had strict rules about the size of her television, when she could use the communal kitchen, and who could visit. Orlando couldn’t understand why his friends couldn’t come over.
During the time in the shelter, Orlando was assigned to prekindergarten at the Blackstone Elementary School in the South End. Polanco was relieved that his teacher spoke Spanish.
“I didn’t know anything about the system and she guided me,” said Polanco. “She told me, ‘You’re not alone. There are other parents here like you and this is going to be your community.’”
Polanco took her advice and started attending parent meetings at the school. “I remember seeing this vibrant, dynamic woman, raising her hand and talking and inspiring other parents to action,” said Ariel Branz, who in 2015 had started organizing Blackstone parents for St. Stephen’s Youth Programs, a South End nonprofit that provides after-school programs for BPS students.
“As an organizer, you’re always looking for leaders ... and I thought, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a leader.’”
Branz tapped Polanco immediately to organize Blackstone parents during the hours she wasn’t washing linens at a nursing home.
Branz and Polanco heard that parents felt alienated at their children’s schools because of their language, socioeconomic class, or race. At the same time, they resented the stereotypes in society about Latino and Black parents as “uninvolved” or “bad,” when the problem they see is schools weren’t built to include them; campuses often didn’t employ staff who spoke the same language or provide interpreters.
St. Stephen’s piloted a program in 2017 to build trust between parents and schools by having caregivers — mostly mothers and some grandmothers — work inside a classroom two hours a day every day.
That year, Polanco was in the first group of parents to go through the parent mentor program and worked in Dana Griswold’s prekindergarten classroom for students with special needs, including nonverbal children.
Griswold remembers Polanco was shocked by how much of their own money teachers spent on their classrooms and that the job often included potty-training of the 3- to 5-year-olds. Polanco jumped in and did anything she was asked to do, said Griswold.
“She was my right hand,” said Griswold.
By spending every morning at the Blackstone for more than a year, Polanco became aware of some of the challenges at the school. Built in 1975, the Blackstone was an open-concept building meant to foster collaboration among classes. But without walls and doors, students couldn’t focus and it was hard for teachers to keep them safe, Griswold said.
Around the same time, the Blackstone faced a budget shortfall of more than $400,000 because it was leaving “turnaround” status, a special state designation that devotes additional resources to underperforming schools. The school would ultimately have to cut two special education staff positions along with a guidance counselor and a swim program, among other services.
Polanco mobilized parents and taught them about the school’s challenges.
“Our families really trusted her and teachers believed in her,” said Griswold.
Polanco’s efforts worked: More than a hundred parents and teachers flooded the School Committee, pushing back against the cuts and prompting the committee to reverse course on some crucial positions and services. In addition to preventing the decrease in services, the district also proposed spending $5 million to build walls and doors at the Blackstone; the project stalled, however, after consultants determined it would be more complicated to remodel than expected.
Now Polanco is in charge of the parent mentor program, which has expanded to Orchard Gardens K-8 in Roxbury and the Hurley K-8 in the South End.
After two Latina representatives on the School Committee resigned this summer following the release of racially charged texts they sent to one another at a school meeting, Janey called for residents to nominate themselves to fill the seats. Despite her success, Polanco was reluctant to apply, her friends said.
“She was worried about her English and thought they wouldn’t pick her,” former St. Stephen’s organizer Janet Muñoz said in Spanish. “But I knew they’d pick her. The Boston Public Schools needs people like Rafa.”
Polanco’s tenure on the School Committee ends when Janey leaves office Nov. 16 and a newly elected mayor appoints her own replacements to the two seats. Polanco is reapplying and hopes to be reappointed.
But even during her four-month tenure, Polanco’s presence on the committee has shifted some thinking among committee members.
Polanco has shared her own perceptions of the School Committee, as someone who often spoke during the public comment portion of the meetings. For a long time, she didn’t understand why the committee never responded to parents, students, and teachers who testified and oftentimes became emotional. “I wondered if they were really listening,” she told them.
The feedback made an impression on Robinson, who took over as chairwoman in July, and has started to think about the limitations of public comment as “one-way communication.”
“I’m hopeful we can make a change,” said Polanco. “Otherwise, people will stop believing in the system.”
This story has been updated to correct a reference to the translation of School Committee meeting materials. Such materials have been translated in nine languages for nearly a year.