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Chamber CEO looks to revive effort to strengthen school-business ties in Boston

Jim Rooney, the CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce.JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF/File

The start of the school year offers students another shot at a clean slate, a do-over of sorts. the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive, Jim Rooney, hopes the same can be said for the business community’s relationship with Boston Public Schools.

It’s not that the existing connection is particularly strained. It’s just the wasted potential that has left Rooney disappointed.

After all, four years ago Mayor Martin J. Walsh gave a stirring call to employers during his annual speech to the chamber: Get more involved with the schools. Meetings were held. Ideas were tossed about. The inevitable hashtag, #InvestBPS, was born. There was an initial burst of energy, as is often the case when good ideas are proposed. But nothing much came of it.


The momentum, Rooney says, fizzled out. One obstacle, he says, seemed to be a reluctance to cede any sort of educational responsibility to the business community.

That was under a previous schools superintendent, Tommy Chang. There’s a new boss at the Bolling Building now: Brenda Cassellius, Minnesota’s former education commissioner. Rooney didn’t waste time getting on her calendar. Maybe Cassellius could shake up the bureaucracy. The two met before the school year began.

Rooney wants a more formal system for corporate involvement, one that goes beyond simply tallying financial contributions. He envisions employers playing a greater role in shaping the curriculum, to help prepare the city’s future workforce.

A perfect example: The chamber in May released a report that recommended changes at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School to better align the school with labor market trends, such as adopting programs for robotics, biotech, and animal science. Not everyone needs to go to a four-year college or get a graduate degree.

Rooney left the meeting with Cassellius feeling optimistic. Cassellius made it clear she wants business leaders engaged. To get things moving again, the chamber plans to bring together various executives to meet with her early next month.


Cassellius issued a brief statement through a spokeswoman, saying she’s “eager to strengthen our existing partnerships and cultivate new ones with Boston’s business leaders to prepare our students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.”

Businesses, of course, don’t need to wait. Natixis has been heavily involved with BPS for seven years, as has Vertex Pharmaceuticals.

When Vertex relocated from Cambridge to the South Boston Waterfront, CEO Jeff Leiden wanted to get involved with BPS, so the biotech company struck up a partnership with two Southie high schools. That relationship has long since expanded to include more of the school system. In 2014, for example, the company opened a classroom and lab space at its headquarters dedicated to BPS students; more than 1,000 come through the lab every year. Vertex offers scholarships, sponsors a summer camp, leads workshops for teachers.

Natixis, meanwhile, adopted John Winthrop Elementary School in Dorchester; employees of the French financial firm volunteer as mentors, help clean up the property, and distribute gifts for the winter holidays.

As General Electric moved its headquarters to Boston in 2016, helping the city’s public school system became a top philanthropic priority. The GE foundation pledged $25 million, initially to be spread over five years, to BPS; about half of that amount had been contributed as of the end of 2018. GE has funded coding boot camps, scholarships, and two mobile labs that bring science and technology experiences directly to the schools.


These efforts, by all accounts, have become successful conduits between corporate Boston and neighborhood schools. But Rooney says these successes underscore the potential for taking a more systematic approach to bringing BPS and business together.

On paper, this all sounds great. In a speech, even better. But turning an idea into action is another thing altogether, particularly when a government bureaucracy is responsible for pulling it off.

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.